3 stars (out of four)
Even the best romantic comedies have a well-deserved reputation for being the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food: enormously enjoyable at the time of consumption, but too quickly digested to provide any lasting sense of fulfillment.
Happily for those of us who enjoy the genre but wouldn't mind more substance on the empty-calorie march toward bliss, "Something New," the beguiling feature film debut from Sanaa Hamri, carries a little bit more weight than the average rom-com. More fiber, if you will. And with that, the gastrointestinal imagery is officially retired. For the rest of this review, anyway.
Kenya (the luminous Sanaa Lathan, who emerged as a star in 2000's "Love and Basketball") is a hugely successful accountant who's ready to meet her Ideal Black Man (IBM). The IBM will be, in no particular order, employed, not gay, taller than she is and, needless to say, black. He will also conform to another laundry list of requirements. The message is clear from the get-go: Kenya is not a woman who will accept anything less than perfection, from herself or anyone else.
Predictably, life throws into Kenya's meticulously laid plans a bit of a wrench in the form of Brian, a gorgeous, successful landscape designer, played by the almost unbearably charismatic Simon Baker, whose crinkly eyes and broad grin suggest a more appealing and considerably less moronic Matthew McConaughey.
Brian is white. Kenya is black. This is perfectly OK with Brian, but it is most definitely not OK with Kenya, or with her upper-crust family (which includes Alfre Woodard as the kind of high-strung, high-society mother who makes daughters everywhere want to run off and date the most inappropriate man they can find).
Love (or magnetism, or lust, or whatever) takes over, and soon Brian and Kenya are negotiating the rocky terrain of interracial dating. This is where the interesting stuff comes in. Told from the largely unfamiliar perspective of a privileged black enclave, "Something New" turns the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" cliches on their heads. At a party held in Kenya's newly landscaped (oh, yes) back yard, Brian offers two (black) partygoers a drink. When he leaves to fill their order, they turn to one another and exclaim, clearly surprised, "That white guy was really nice!"
Similar situations arise throughout Kenya and Brian's courtship: Brian is referred to as Kenya's "nightlight" when they visit a comedy club together; her friends (particularly the guys) give him a hard time. When the pressure gets to be too much, their split sends Kenya into the waiting arms of super-attorney Mark (Blair Underwood), who just happens to fit every single criteria laid out in her IBM list. Soul-searching ensues.
"Something New" is a light treatment that touches on some heavy topics (all of which are more strenuously considered in Oscar-nominated "Crash"): Can people of different races really ever understand each other? Do our similarities as humans outweigh our cultural differences? Is "color-blindness" actually a possibility? And if it is, does anyone really want to live that way? These are big questions, largely unanswerable. But the fact that any movie is actually asking them is almost pathetically gratifying.
This is not a perfect movie. There are any number of "cute" moments to be endured as romance blossoms between Kenya and Brian (we've got the cute rain-soaked-kissing scene, the cute painting-the-walls scene, the cute toenail-painting scene and, of course, the requisite cute cooking scene, which are perhaps throwbacks to Hamri's past as director of music videos). And for all the cliches the movie upends, a few are also played straight ("I take hard earth and make it bloom," Brian intones while wooing Kenya away from her uptight ways). Thanks, however, to Hamri's light touch and the considerable chemistry between Lathan and Baker, it's easy to forgive these missteps--leaving the film plenty of goodwill to spare.
Directed by Sanaa Hamri; written by Kriss Turner; cinematography by Shane Hurlbut; music by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman; edited by Melissa Kent; produced by Stephanie Allain. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references).
Kenya - Sanaa Lathan
Brian - Simon Baker
Walter - Mike Epps
Nelson - Donald Faison
Mark - Blair UnderwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times