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film review ..: ...Something New... is Nothing New

Latest Boy-Meets-Girl Story Lacks Originality and Intrigue

By George S. Zaidan

Something New

Directed by Sanaa Hamri

Written by Kriss Turner

Starring Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker

Focus Features

Rated PG-13

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Something New” is the story of Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), the driven businesswoman who can’t seem to find time for love. It’s also the story of Brian the Landscaper (Simon Baker), the gentle gardener who can’t help but love everything he touches. You don’t need to see the movie to guess what happens next: boy and girl get set up on blind date, boy meets girl, girl is shocked to find boy is white … hold up. What? Oh, sorry. I guess I should have mentioned that Kenya is black and Brian is white.

Written by Kriss Turner (“Whoopi,” “The Bernie Mac Show”), the movie’s plot is as conventional as any other romantic comedy. It hits all the requisite points, including the awkward boy-girl meeting, the falling-in-love-to-music montage, the other man, and the inevitable marriage at the end. The only difference is that “Something New” plays the race card. To fully understand the movie and how it compares to its predecessors like “Crash,” we need some additional tools.

If you ever happen to take a class with Professor David Thorburn, one of the first television scholars, you will hear about the Consensus Narrative system, a medium through which a society discusses its mainstream values, continually challenging them with older, more traditional values, and newer, emerging ones. Well-worn genres are especially important in the Consensus Narrative system, as their familiar plots, styles, and characters provide a safe haven where new ideas can be discussed.

The Consensus Narrative system has some interesting side effects: texts that present some form of emergent value — say, an interracial relationship — cannot jump into deep discussions, at least at first. Why? If the discussion is too serious or too penetrating, the text risks marginalizing itself and reducing its impact (assuming it gets funded in the first place).

True to form, “Something New” brings little new material to the conversation on race in America. Disturbingly, it may even degrade the debate by introducing us to a whole cast of utterly one-dimensional characters. Brian is simply too good to be true — not only is he tolerant of everything and everyone, but he almost refuses to believe that racism exists. He protests that he “wasn’t raised that way.” Give me a break. Anyone raised on this planet knows about the added pressures of being a minority in a white America.

Incidentally, we have no clue how Brian is raised — we never see his parents (or, indeed, any relatives). It’s an important and inexplicable omission, especially given that Kenya’s parents are featured prominently.

To be fair, for a brief moment Brian lets his utopian guard down and shows that he is a believable character, with sensitivities and prejudices. This is the best scene in the film. Too bad it’s only about two minutes out of 99. Those in the movie who are racist or prejudiced, such as the fat old white guy who blatantly refuses to trust Kenya with his finances, are mere caricatures. Notably, there’s his polar opposite: Kenya’s boss, who is, if possible, even more pure than Brian, and staunchly stands by Kenya’s every decision. These characters are about as convincing as a politician’s pledge during an election year.

Technically, the movie is unspectacular, sometimes downright bad. During one scene the camera dizzyingly circles the characters for 3 full minutes, and the damn thing can never seem to focus on Brian’s face. Editing, music, composition — all mediocre.

“Something New” is a movie designed for the Consensus Narrative system. The problem is, film is no longer the consensus medium. In fact, it hasn’t been since television started taking over in the fifties. The movie doesn’t need to trivialize its discussion. Look at “Crash,” a film that deals with race in a much more serious and systematic way. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think “Crash” is a truly great movie. But it sure is better than this crap.