(by Dustin Putman
Were it just a little bit smarter and not so reliant on formulaic plotting, "Just Wright" would make a nice companion piece to 2006's "Something New." Both are directed by Sanaa Hamri, and both deal in love stories between two seeming opposites. In "Something New," a presumably outdated, archaic conflict—that of an interracial romance—was freshened up with a modern spin and a lot of surprising thoughtfulness and heart. In the less convincing "Just Wright," the courtship is between an athlete and a not-so-petite but still certainly attractive woman. Screenwriter Michael Elliot (2002's "Like Mike") strains to bring complications, roadblocks and pitfalls to this situation, but instead of building anticipation for a happy ending he has rendered the actions of one of his protagonists as boneheaded, frustrating, and almost unforgivable. Article continues below
Fun-loving, good-hearted 35-year-old Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah) is content in her profession—she is a physical therapist at a New York City rehabilitation center—but not nearly as lucky in love, every date ending with her being told that she's good "friend" material. No sooner has Leslie run into New Jersey Nets All-Star Scott McKnight (Common) when his eyes wander toward her manipulative, more classically beautiful god-sister Morgan (Paula Patton), instead. They quickly become engaged, and then potential disaster strikes when Scott hurts his knee on the court, threatening his future in the NBA. Just as Morgan ducks out of the relationship, Leslie agrees to be his temporary live-in physical therapist, hoping to whip him back into shape in eight weeks, just in time for the playoffs. Sparks slowly but surely fly as an undeniable connection is made between them, but is Leslie the person Scott truly wants, or is she just sloppy seconds? This question is put to the test when Morgan suddenly walks back into his life, wanting another chance.
2010 has not been a banner year for the romantic comedy genre. The only successful one—the delightful Steve Carell/Tina Fey-starrer "Date Night"—has been monumentally outweighed by the mediocre ("Valentine's Day," "Leap Year," "When in Rome") and the just plain bad ("She's Out of My League," "The Bounty Hunter," "The Back-Up Plan," "Our Family Wedding"). "Just Wright" is no "Date Night," but it is mostly watchable, and does edge closer than the other aforementioned films to earning a recommendation. Unfortunately, a by-the-numbers premise, a lack of originality, and a wildly uneven script botch the outcome. If viewers can't buy into what is happening on the screen, how does a director expect the project to work at all?
As played by the luminous Queen Latifah (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees"), Leslie is a warm hug of a character. She may not be a size two, but neither is she fat; she's a curvaceous, full-figured and, yes, pretty woman with a bright personality to match. Any number of men would throw themselves at her, but in the world of Hollywood, Leslie is stuck with few romantic options. Scott drops her twice—once at the onset, before getting engaged to Morgan following what seems to be a week-long courtship, and then again after he and Leslie have fallen for each other and Morgan reenters the picture. It will be blindingly clear to anyone who has been watching the previous hour of the picture that Leslie and Scott are soul mates, two peas in a pod who support and nurture one another while also sharing many of the same interests. Meanwhile, Scott feels nothing toward Morgan besides physical attraction. The very idea that he could so coldly toss Leslie aside like that and entertain the idea of getting back with Morgan is outrageous to the point of insulting. Leslie is right to be peeved about it, but she's far too forgiving when the inevitable upbeat conclusion comes knocking.
If Scott is that dense and shallow with the opposite sex, taking as long as he does to come around to the truth in his heart, then maybe Leslie doesn't need him, after all. A rapper-turned-actor in his first leading-man role, Common (2009's "Terminator Salvation") is still decidedly rough around the edges, but his ability to adequately exude different emotions in front of the camera signals that with further experience should come stronger performances. Character-wise, better is the treatment of Morgan, a self-confessed gold-digger who nonetheless has enough of a conscience to think about and care for Leslie. It would have been easy to write her as an icy, one-note villain, but she is better fleshed out than that—a flawed but not spiteful figure. Paula Patton (2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") makes sure to give as many layers as she can to her relatively thankless part as Morgan. More clichéd is Leslie's mother (Pam Grier), blathering on in every scene about how Leslie needs a man, as if that were the one and only key to a happy, full life. Her father (James Pickens Jr.), by contrast, is a strong, positive figure who, in one of the movie's quieter, more touching scenes, has a heart-to-heart with Leslie and tells her how beautiful she is, just as she is.
Technically, "Just Wright" is fairly bland. The music score isn't too bombastic, but it also doesn't stand out. The cinematography gets the job done, but isn't the type one remembers for long. The New Jersey/New York location shooting is naturalistic, but forgettable. At the center, where she belongs, is Queen Latifah, a glorious screen presence who could stand to hold out for material with an IQ to match the intelligence so clearly residing in her noggin. When the time finally comes for Nick's long-overdue apology—his preceding moment of clarity comes in the middle of a television interview that he doesn't even stay to finish, ugh—the film has jerked the audience around to the point where we don't really like him much anymore. It is a testament to Latifah, then, that she makes the finale work in spite of its problems, to the point where it's kind of sweet and emotional. It's a long journey getting there, though, and for a tale told many times before—and better—not quite worth the effort and manipulation.