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The Next Best Thing

Better Than Some Things

By Fred Choi

Directed by John Schlesinger

Written by Thomas Ropelewski

Starring Madonna, Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Vartan, Josef Sommer, and Lynn Redgrave

Lakeshore Entertainment

Madonna and Rupert Everett co-star as Abby and Robert, two best friends who accidentally have a baby together. They decide to form a family, an arrangement complicated by the fact that Robert is gay. In the end the two fight over their child in court.

Hmmm. According to screenplay writer Thomas Ropelwski, the “next best thing” to getting married to a man you love and having a family is shagging your best friend (who happens to be gay) and having a family. Along with this outrageous conceit, he and director John Schlesinger ask us to believe many more incredible elements in the new movie The Next Best Thing, which range from the initially startling to the painfully contrived. For the most part the movie is contrived and clichÉ, but a solid supporting cast and some interesting ideas make this a movie worth seeing.

For example, after a few minutes it’s not too difficult to believe that pop music superstar and actress Madonna’s name is Abby and that she’s a yoga instructor; her demonstration of her yoga prowess in the movie certainly helps make this more real. It’s a little harder to believe that Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding, An Ideal Husband) is a landscape gardener named Robert, but as we see him working we accept this within the context of the film. And Madonna and Everett’s on-screen banter is lively and does a good job of making us believe that they’re best friends. But something that requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief is that these two best friends would get drunk enough to have sex together. One has to wonder if the two characters were completely comatose.

Still, one could easily forgive a few sketchy parts in a narrative form which, after all, only imitates life, but even then there are still numerous plot elements that don’t make much sense. If a person who had never been to Los Angeles saw The Next Best Thing, she might derive an interesting collection of conclusions from it: apparently LA is filled with “beautiful strangers” who are self-centered and insane and have houses that look like works of art that no one actually lives in.

More to the point, however, is that during the last third of the movie the audience is required to sit through the litigative tug-of-war that occurs between Abby and Robert as they fight for the custody of the child that they have raised together for six years. The circumstances surrounding the change in their situation are for once realistic, but the sudden shift in focus and tone makes the movie stumble, and the sudden lack of character development leaves the audience indifferent and bored.

For the most part, what isn’t contrived in The Next Best Thing is clichÉ, albeit well-executed. The beginning, in which Abby begs Robert for advice about what to do about her boyfriend and in which he then consoles her, could have been from a direct-to-video release entitled My Best Friend’s Wedding Part Two. The scene in which Robert rescues Abby’s keys by playing on gay stereotypes is trite and borders on being offensive. And of course there’s the obligatory pregnancy montage, which thankfully ends before we have to endure the “baby grows up and daddy learns to change his smelly diaper” sequence. One of the most distracting features of the movie, however, is the artful cinematography. In a more epic movie this would certainly be appropriate, but in this Made For TV-esque bubble gum comedy/grimy courtroom drama such visuals are simply distracting and one wishes the producers had spent more time refining the plot rather than making things look “beautiful.”

Despite all the complaints, though, it would be overly critical to say that The Next Best Thing is a terrible movie. There are a few good reasons to spend eight bucks and two hours seeing it. First, if you need an eye-candy fix after spending too much time on MIT’s campus there’s the harem of gorgeous, extremely well-groomed men that accompany the luminous Madonna throughout the movie, specifically the suave Rupert Everett, the virile Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order), who plays Abby’s new love interest, and the boy-next-door Michael Vartan (Never Been Kissed), who plays Abby’s former boyfriend. Also, Madonna, although rather stodgy and stiff in parts, demonstrates her maturation as an actress in her role as Abby. However, due to the limiting script we only catch glimmers of her and Rupert Everett’s skill.

In general the movie features a strong cast, particularly the wonderful Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters, Shine) as Robert’s mother, who sails through the few scenes she’s in, and Josef Sommer (The Chamber) as Robert’s father, who thinks the life his son has chosen is ridiculous. Newcomer Malcolm Stumpf does a great job as the six-year old son, and a memorable moment is the one in which he explains to his father that he’s heard that being gay is “when two boys kiss and then go to the opera.”

The movie does bring up some interesting points about the new American family, homosexuals’ abilities in raising well-adjusted children, and the rights of homosexuals as parents, the latter of which is just now becoming more and more relevant, as the Vermont decision on same-sex marriage proves. It never really delves deeply into any of them (perhaps for now bringing them into mainstream pop culture is revolutionary enough), but this is not a fault because the movie’s focus is more on the relationship between the two main characters. All in all, although this certainly isn’t “the next best thing,” it’s better than tooling 6.170 or sitting through Madonna’s rendition of “American Pie.”