Funky Fresh

A white leading man in a black movie? That is something new.

January has earned its reputation as the month in which studios unload all their cheapie horror flicks, but February is the month when we invariably get yet another middle-of-the-road black-urban-professional romantic comedy. (It's both Black History and Valentine's month, hence the logic.) In that regard, Something New is anything but new; but it departs from predecessors like Deliver Us From Eva and The Brothers with the radical addition of one white person to the principal cast--Simon Baker, the male lead in The Ring Two and Land of the Dead. So having survived zombies and drowned videotape girls, can Baker face down the threat of tokenism?

Not only can he, but he manages to break new ground by doing so. It's virtually unprecedented in contemporary Hollywood for a white man in a comedy to be more down-to-earth, spontaneous, relaxed and macho than any of the otherwise all-black cast, who mostly come off as uptight and nitpicky. No, the movie doesn't end with him learning Ebonics or hip-hop dance--though, by the same token, we should note that he doesn't try to teach any of his fellow characters how to be cool by acting white. That might stretch credibility a little too far. The closest he gets in that area is to assert that hair weaves are lame.

Baker plays Brian, a landscape architect who more or less embodies the female ideal of masculinity. He has big muscles that come from manual labor rather than the gym, he knows all about gardening, he loves animals, he talks about his feelings, and he's better at interior design than most women. There's no indication that he ever drinks beer, burps loudly, watches violent movies, makes a mess or does any of the things that women rightfully hate about men.

Details

Directed by Sanaa Hamri. Screenplay by Kriss Turner. Starring Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Donald Faison and Alfre Woodard. Opens Friday.

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The only question is what the hell Brian sees in Kenya (Sanaa Lathan), an uptight senior accountant who also happens to be an obsessive-compulsive control freak. Kenya's a career woman in the Maureen Dowd mode, who laments that men can't see what a wonderful catch a smart career woman is, all the while maintaining a mental checklist that ensures that no man interested in her will be good enough for her. It's true that Lathan is an attractive woman, and there are probably lots of guys who appreciate the fact that she starred in Alien vs. Predator. But in Something New, she does her best to come off as unattractive, at least in the first half, and it works too well. If Brian really wants to get with a sista, any one of Kenya's friends would seem infinitely more appealing.

Kenya doesn't even date white people, so she claims; "It's not a prejudice, it's a preference." It's also a bit of parental pressure, as her overbearing mother (Alfre Woodard) dictates Kenya's personal style. So when Kenya first meets Brian on a blind date, she freaks out and starts complimenting random black strangers on their dreadlocks and so forth in an attempt to scare him away. They quickly part, but then, as pure screenwriting contrivance would have it, she meets him again at a fancy party, inadvertently admiring his landscaping handiwork until she realizes it's all him. He works cheap, and she has an ugly backyard, so soon the two are brought together yet again, causing rumors to fly when Kenya's brother (Donald Faison) stops by.

One hates to make gratuitous slams about a person's appearance, but in Faison's case, it cannot go unmentioned that the large mole on his upper lip is every bit as distracting as the gag mole worn by Fred Savage in Austin Powers 3, plus its placement and dark color bring to mind a miniaturized Hitler 'stache. Plastic surgery is seldom advisable, but I'd like to implore Faison to have that thing removed.

OK, back to the story: Blair Underwood eventually shows up, trying to be Billy Dee Williams and offer true blackness to Kenya, but the underlying joke is that his character traits are more stereotypically "white" than those of Brian. By this time, Kenya has finally loosened up a little bit, to where we can see what Brian might like about her. The only hitch in their relationship is that he doesn't want to talk about race every single day--what a hardass, huh?

Like most films of its type, Something New is not tough to sit through, but the thought of paying full price to see it isn't especially desirable. Given that there's no nudity, no violence, and maybe only one word you can't say on TV, you probably needn't wait long for it to play on Lifetime.

 
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