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Working Up Some Fun in ‘Business’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Making you laugh, turning you on. That’s most of the agenda for “Strictly Business” (citywide).

And, for much of it’s length, it does a fairly good job of both.

It’s a shallow, good-time movie that works out of the same Cinderella-in-corporate-land fantasies that fueled both “The Secret of My Success” and “Working Girl"--except here the perspective is black. Bifurcated black. The buddy heroes are opposites: street-wise Bobby Johnson (Tommy Davidson of “In Living Color”) and “Buppie” Waymon Tinsdale III (Joseph C. Phillips of “The Cosby Show”), who both work for the same Manhattan real estate brokerage. Both are on separate tracks, Tinsdale bucking for a partnership and Bobby bucking to get out of the mail room.

The movie never bothers to explain how they got to be such good friends; it’s not because they’re “homies.” But it’s clear that, on some level, Bobby the street bro is Tinsdale’s conscience. He’s the cultural guardian angel who keeps Tinsdale from getting too white--which here, as in Michael Schultz’s recent comedy, “Living Large,” is the ultimate sin.

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Bobby is unnervingly up-front and irreverent with Tinsdale and Tinsdale accepts it all almost masochistically. There’s a catch. Bobby holds the talisman to his buddy’s desire: friendship with Natalie (Halle Berry) the super-sexy, smiling girl of Tinsdale’s wayward dreams. And, without Bobby the Harlem hipster, Tinsdale is stuck with a sex life that’s opportunistic and cold: drill sergeant sex with his executive fiance “Diedre” (Anne Marie Johnson), who wants everything, even orgasms, to be right on schedule.

The writers of “Strictly Business” include a video director, Pam Gibson, and Village Voice writer Nelson George. They’re neither particularly good nor bad. It’s a serviceable, predictable, uninspired wish-fulfillment script. But the director, who comes from TV, has something. He’s Kevin Hooks--whom most of us will remember as the boy star of Martin Ritt’s “Sounder"--and his style is warm, lively. Like many seasoned TV directors, he knows how to talk to an audience.

In “Do the Right Thing,” “getting paid” assumes an almost cosmic significance. The characters in “Strictly Business” have a similar idee fixe: They’re hipped on success.

There’s no questioning about the nature of success, simply an obsession with the mechanics of getting it. The implication is that winning will solve everything. It won’t--and that overprogrammed dream is what keeps movies such as “Strictly Business” (MPAA rated PG-13 for sensuality and language) fun, but very slight.

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‘Strictly Business’ Tommy Davidson: Bobby Johnson Joseph C. Phillips: Waymon Tinsdale Anne Marie Johnson: Diedre Halle Berry: Natalie

A Warner Brothers presentation, in association with Island World of an Andre Harrell production. Director Kevin Hooks. Producer Harrell, Pam Gibson. Executive producers Mark Burg, Chris Zarpas. Screenplay by Gibson, Nelson George. Cinematographer Zoltan David. Editor Richard Nord. Music Michel Colombier. Production design Ruth Ammon. Art director Rowena Rowling. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13


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