Waiting to Exhale triumphs with unforgettable characters

By the time Gloria unexpectedly stumbles across the street to Marvin's welcoming smile, she has truly earned the outbreak of applause that filled the theater at a recent screening.

By the time Exhale makes its way to Robin (Lela Rochon), you won't know what hit you. Not because she's beautiful, but because her acting will both shock and delight you. Rochon has been relegated on the big screen to glamour roles of Eddie Murphy's making. In the dreadful Harlem Nights, she played Sunshine, a whore whose pleasures were so good "you'd think the sun was coming up at midnight." Then Rochon was the sensitive beauty with the bad feet in Boomerang. In other words, she's been a beautiful joke.

Rochon's Robin is a searing depiction of a woman seeking the middle space between her heart and her wild oats. She is at first hoping and dreaming for someone to love her deeply. Then, just as quickly, she is the woman-child in a candy store of chocolate-covered men. What she really wants to have is someone who will never let her down, but her eyes are bigger than her heart.

Trying to shake off bad boys like the smoother-than-silk Russell, Robin latches onto co-worker Michael (Wendell Pierce). Michael is long in some areas: house, car, and career. But he comes up comically short in the one place where Robin needs him to be long. Pierce's turn as lover is probably the most sophomorically directed in Exhale. But then, with the craft of an aged storyteller, Whitaker pulls the comedy into truer focus, with Robin and Michael talking honestly about their expectations from a relationship. This moment, like most of those in Exhale, can't be reduced to a "black thang." Whitaker and the screenwriters have a true grasp of the characters' importance to Exhale's audience. What happens in that bedroom was happening last Friday and Saturday night all over America between the sexes.

Whitaker has taken on a veritable force of nature with McMillan's extremely popular novel. The result is a true-to-the-book passion play about the explosive desires of these four women.

Unlike other women's stories, there are no classic victims in Exhale. To his benefit, Whitaker doesn't turn Exhale into a pity party where women circle the wagons and trash men. Instead, the women recognize that the men who dance through their lives leaving troubles have done so by invitation. Their new year begins the process of uninviting these troubles.

As for the brothers they encounter in their year of breathlessness, there is much to be desired. Every relationship stereotype that black men barked about from the book has made its way into the movie version of Exhale. But as one of those brothers, I came away from Exhale saying, if it barks, howls during sex, and humps the leg of a friend, it deserves to be called a dog. And yes, dogs do drive Mercedes Benzes and have been known to date white women.

Waiting to Exhale. Twentieth Century Fox. Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine. Written by Terry McMillan and Ronald Bass. Directed by Forest Whitaker. Opens December 22.

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