When a woman loftily declares to the men in her sisters' lives that women uplift culture while men only lift up lap dancers, it's hardly a friendly sign. In "Deliver Us From Eva," a shrewd and funny romantic comedy, the formidable title character behaves likes a man-hater. Worse, Eva (Gabrielle Union), as beautiful as she is sharp tongued, interferes constantly in the lives of her devoted and equally beautiful younger siblings, Kareenah (Essence Atkins), Bethany (Robinne Lee) and Jacqui (Meagan Good).
Eva makes life so miserable for her brothers-in-law Tim (Mel Jackson) and Darrell (Dartanyan Edmonds) and Bethany's boyfriend, Mike (Duane Martin), regular guys all, that they resort to desperate measures. Salvation comes into view in the massive, suave form of Ray (James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J), a legendary ladies' man in need of a down payment on a house. For a $5,000 fee, Ray is willing to seduce Eva so successfully she will never again put down the men in her sisters' lives.
It's hardly a stretch to guess how everything turns out, but director Gary Hardwick and his co-writers make the getting there not only fun, but thoughtful. Ray inevitably will sweep Eva off her feet but not count upon falling in love for real, but what is not so predictable is that in the process of her thawing out she will in turn focus his ambitions and inspire him to fulfill his potential as a man and an entrepreneur. Hardwick et al. have written a wonderful part for Union, who zestfully establishes herself as an emasculating put-down artist of the first magnitude, but as Eva and Ray get to know each other, we in turn get the opportunity to understand how she got that way and why her younger sisters allow her to control their lives. Eva's high standards have fused with an unhappy long-past experience to poison her sisters' relationships. Happily, the filmmakers maneuver Eva and Ray's moment of truth imaginatively. Union, Smith and Hardwick make us care about the lovers.
"Deliver Us From Eva" seems to be set in Oakland and/or Berkeley but clearly has been shot primarily in L.A. locales, with the four sisters each living in a handsome vintage home in a leafy, upscale neighborhood. The sisters gather frequently at a neighborhood beauty shop where hair stylists Ormandy (Kym Whitley), a voluptuous and unabashed man-chaser, and the witty Telly (Royale Watkins) form a scene-stealing comic Greek chorus. (Having established Telly as an easygoing, openly gay man, the filmmakers perversely add a tag to the end credits disclosing that Telly is really straight but had to play gay to get a job in a beauty salon. Didn't anybody here see "Shampoo," which came out in 1975?)
Smith and Union play off each other smartly -- and steamily -- and blend into an effective ensemble cast. "Deliver Us From Eva" flows smoothly, looks great and probably cost lots less than it looks. One can't help resist saying it delivers the goods.
'Deliver Us From Eva'
MPAA rating: R, for sex-related dialogue.
Times guidelines: Racy but not profane.
James Todd Smith, a.k.a. LL Cool J ... Ray
Gabrielle Union ... Eva
Duane Martin ... Mike
Essence Atkins ... Kareenah
Robinne Lee ... Bethany
Meagan Good ... Jacqui
Mel Jackson ... Tim
Dartanyan Edmonds ... Darrell
A Focus Features release of a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production. Director Gary Hardwick. Producers Len Amato, Paddy Cullen. Executive producers Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson. Screenplay James Iver Mattson & B.E. Brauner and Hardwick, from a story by Mattson and Brauner. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski. Editor Earl Watson. Music Marcus Miller. Costumes Debrae Little. Production designer Edward T. McAvoy. Art director Bill Hiney. Set decorator Jan Pascale. Running time: I hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.