Like a sturgeon
The first thought one has while watching The Next Best Thing is, "Was Madonna always this bad an actress?" It's a question that soon fades from consciousness, to be replaced by, "Was Rupert Everett always this bad an actor?" Then, a little later, arrives this query: "Was John Schlesinger always this bad a director?" Since the answers to the last two questions are resounding nos, we will give Madonna the benefit of the doubt, though the thudding awfulness of her work in The Next Best Thing does recall her wretched performance as the accused murder-by-pussy defendant in 1993's Body of Evidence.
But nobody involved will want to make this banal "comedy" a highlight of their résumé, not if they have any sense. The one exception could be screenwriter Tom Ropelewski, whose brief résumé starts with the third-rate thriller The Kiss and proceeds downhill from there, believe it or not. (Anyone who's seen Madhouse, which he wrote and directed, will believe it.) Still, let's be fair and spread the credit around. What was Schlesinger -- whose classics go back as far as Billy Liar, Darling, Marathon Man, Midnight Cowboy, even 1995's Cold Comfort Farm -- thinking?
Madonna plays Abbie, a Los Angeles yoga instructor with a penchant for picking the wrong guys. When her latest two-year affair, with egocentric record producer Kevin (Michael Vartan), goes the way of all the others, she seeks comfort from her best friend, Robert (Rupert Everett), a gay landscape architect. Not too long thereafter -- though the passage of time is unclearly marked throughout -- she and Robert get drunk and have a one-night stand. And not long after that, she realizes she's pregnant. After minimal shilly-shallying, she and Robert decide to raise the child together without getting married or pretending their deep friendship is anything other than what it is.
Ka-blam! Five or six years pass, and Sam (Malcolm Stumpf), their son, has grown into a thoroughly normal, likable moppet. But trouble enters paradise when Abbie finally meets Mr. Right -- wealthy, handsome, understanding businessman Ben (Benjamin Bratt, ex of Law and Order) -- and decides to get married. Emotional and legal chaos ensue.
The gay-man-sets-up-house-with-female-pal story is nothing new, dating back at least as far as 1978's A Different Story, which itself was no great shakes, all the way to 1998's The Object of My Affection, which told the same story, more or less, with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. And, in light of developments such as California's anti-same-sex-marriage referendum, the issue of legal rights for homosexual couples -- which the last act of the film touches on -- continues to be of great importance. But the film never really deals with anything: Its problems are unclearly presented, and its solutions forced, in large part because the characters are so ill-conceived.
Even before his public breakthrough with My Best Friend's Wedding, Everett had given a series of excellent performances, starting as long ago as 1983 in Another Country. And, at occasional moments, he is able to make Robert appealing, but not for long. Ropelewski's comic dialogue is so arch, so poorly written, it defeats even Everett's estimable talent. Worse, the film fails to give us any reason to like or care about these people: Abbie is simply dull, while Ben is an idealized Perfect Man -- that is, a cipher. Robert appears to be an absolutely flawless father to Sam, as though we would lose all sympathy if his parenting were even a little flawed.
The filmmakers bend over so far backward to set up their climactic situation, they suck the life out of the characters. Even worse, they add complications to the plot in the final half hour that require Robert suddenly to act like a bastard and a moron...and then, they fail to do anything with those complications. A minor character reappears in a dramatic Paul Drake-like courtroom moment, then is limply dispensed with through a single line of dialogue later.
In order to give the appearance of dramatic complexity, there are two hackneyed subplots that also serve no function: the father who can't deal with his son being gay; and the buddy who has died of AIDS. As the latter's lover, Neil Patrick Harris (that's Doogie Howser to you) shows up once every 20 minutes or so, as if to remind us (ineffectively) of a more sober reality. And to make this thread even worse, a big deal is made of the fact that the dead guy's favorite song was Don MacLean's "American Pie" -- a detail that presumably has more to do with setting up Madonna's remake of the song than with its dramatic value. Sure, I liked "American Pie" when it first came out...for about a week and a half. But it doesn't take long for its dopey, pretentious lyrics and its cutesy-poo internal rhymes to wear thin.
And, yes, I realize human nature is infinite in its variety; that there are, as absurdist rockers Ween put it, "many colors in the homo rainbow"; and that any simple notions about the superiority of gay aesthetic preferences are doubtless a form of sexist stereotyping. Still...a gay man whose favorite song is "American Pie"? I'm surprised that the rest of the gay characters in the film didn't die of embarrassment when that irritating ditty takes on the function of an emotionally charged epitaph. While there is much laughter to be had at The Next Best Thing, I counted one intentional chuckle. The rest of the laughs are strictly at the participants' expense.
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