Breathless

Waiting to Exhale triumphs with unforgettable characters

In a move that promises to fill the theater with howls, John empties the bank account of more than a million dollars, leaving Bernadine and the children with nothing but a well-rehearsed smirk. The treatment of this confrontation, and those that follow, is a testament to Whitaker's mature directing. Exhale skirts the Rikki Lake approach when Bernadine finally meets the other woman, but when it comes time for John's divorce settlement offer, he dishes out some supremely mature and guilt-riddled dialogue. John says offhandedly, "Three-hundred thousand dollars and the desert house--you can't expect better than that." Bernadine cuts a scandalized, Bassett-patented stare and spits back, "Unlike you, your children aren't for sale." She knows that tucked safely away is the couple's motherlode--their source of lifetime security. And by the end of their divorce battles, John is forced to remember just who he entrusted to hide it all away.

Free from John, Bernadine straddles the broad shoulders of her girlfriends and sputters toward a new beginning. She also finds a few male friends who quickly remind her how some men are "like drying paint." Then she comes across her mystery man. In the course of one night, he manages to convince her the love of her dreams is simply a night and a breath away.

There is so much more here than other films about relationships are usually willing to tackle. Savannah, played by Houston, is stifled as much by her mother's desires as her own. Through their exchanges, the layers of despair and abandonment that exist between mothers and daughters come to new light. The gentle undertone in Savannah's search for the perfect man sounds a harsh and hurt-filled cry for honest love. As she prays to God for someone special, she is reminded--by her mother's aloneness--of the consequences of failure. If the statistics are correct, and one-third of black men are unavailable to professional black females, what is these women's fate when they age?

Savannah must purge the influence of her mother's relationships from her own. It is a powerful message--that her mother's apron strings have bound and gagged her own relationships. She reacts to her revelation by skipping among cities and men, limited only by her insistence upon perfect specimens.

Houston's glamorous but passionless Savannah saunters through the film more shadow than motivating force for her friends. Her "supportive" phone call to a defeated, post-break-up Bernadine, called in from Savannah's trailer phone during a makeup session, sounds, at best, hollow and rehearsed. And Robin's beachside "Oprah" session with Savannah on the perils of "waiting on a married man to leave his wife because you're pregnant" is rendered moot by Houston's deadpan response. In a film where everything should have blended, Houston's annoying divadom may be the sole disappointment.

Houston does, however, have moments of pure joy in Exhale. Settling in at a singles' table at a New Year's Eve party, Savannah extends her fangs and claws. Her dress is "that color red," and is carefully poured onto her one strand at a time. And in bed, Savannah is less than sympathetic to a growling stud. Stop by the restroom before this movie starts.

At the beauty salon owned by Gloria (Loretta Divine), Hollywood's flair for stereotype rears its ugly, nappy head. You can't miss Mr. Thang, but he's fortunately short-lived. Otherwise, Gloria is the woman for whom this story is made.

Her daily triumph over a life in which she stands to lose her husband and maybe her son is a winning combination of writing and acting. Gloria is a rock, and proves that a prescription for self-worth is the remedy to her chaos.

When her husband leaves, she takes on the task of raising Tarik without missing a beat. Her friends see her self-imposed celibacy as unhealthy at best, and stupid at worst. But Gloria's choice is by design. It's aimed at her son, who has no male role-models for the games of relationship. She shows him that, through aloneness, you can learn to appreciate yourself.

Some lessons, however, are better learned in the back seat of a car, or--in Tarik's case--in the pool house. Nonetheless, Gloria's trials are rewarded when Tarik takes on the task of uplifting the world through a singing group, and a widowed neighbor, Marvin (Gregory Hines), comes to appreciate all of her.

Gloria is the ultimate "girlfriend" for this foursome. Even as each of them runs to and from the designs of their lives, they turn to Gloria for the final word. When Bernadine begins to stray, feeling her way into the world of sleeping around, it is Gloria's maternal cautions that reel her back. At an amusement park, Gloria wraps her pensive friend in a smile and says, "I need to ask you something that I don't want you to get mad at me about. Are you sleeping with Herbert? You know that he's married." The two exchange what can only be described as a lionesses' stare, and Bernadine's sense of reality returns. It is a moment made poignant by the strong example set as Gloria endures manlessness through the course of her troubles.

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