Gorgeous stars, drop-dead clothes, glamorous settings: "Waiting to Exhale" has all the trappings of a lush, old-fashioned romantic melodrama, the kind of classic "women's picture" that used to appear periodically in the 1950s, most likely directed by Douglas Sirk with titles like "Magnificent Obsession" and "All That Heaven Allows."
Some things, of course, have changed in the ensuing decades. Standards of sexual frankness are looser, a difference that "Exhale" takes gleeful advantage of, and, more to the point, Hollywood feels able to do something it never has before: build a glossy piece of commercial filmmaking around a quartet of African American actresses.
These changes help add life to "Exhale," a pleasant if undemanding piece of work that is diverting to sit through though it won't stand up to any kind of rigorous examination. In fact, the less seriously it takes itself, the more successful this film is.
"Exhale" is based on Terry McMillan's hugely successful novel (700,000 sold in hardback, more than 2 million in paper) that examined, with much-appreciated frankness, the life and loves of four close female friends living in contemporary Phoenix.
The film (written by McMillan and Ronald Bass) opens with Savannah (Whitney Houston) moving from Colorado to Arizona because "all the men in Denver are dead." Waiting for her in Phoenix, besides a challenging job, are three of her closest pals. They're all, in Savannah's phrase, "waiting to exhale," hoping to feel comfortable enough in a relationship to relax into the long haul.
Gloria (Loretta Devine), a beautician with a rambunctious teenage son, worries about having put on those extra pounds. Robin (Lela Rochon) is a beauty whose good sense in the business world never extends to the men in her life. And Bernadine, Bernie to her friends (Angela Bassett), is in the most trouble of all: Her wealthy husband lets her know on New Year's Eve that he's leaving her and their two children to move in with his white bookkeeper.
Sassy, independent, fiercely protective of one another, these women form a communal safety net, providing the support they all need as they navigate a world overrun by silver-tongued, untrustworthy men who are either married or liars or, more likely, both.
The best and funniest stuff in "Waiting to Exhale" is the women's acerbic outlook on the sexual predilections of the men they become entangled with. Directed with a light-fingered frankness by Forest Whitaker, the comic sex scenes between Robin and the oafish Michael (Wendell Pierce) and Savannah and the self-absorbed Lionel (Jeffrey D. Sams) are enormously funny, showing the kind of relaxed but ribald attitude toward sex few films can manage.
The only thing wrong with "Exhale's" sexual humor is that there isn't nearly enough of it. Because, except for an involving interlude between Bernie and a civil rights lawyer named Carl (an unbilled cameo by Wesley Snipes), the film's serious moments are stiff, standard and not nearly as affecting as what's accomplished with comedy.
This is only the second time behind the camera for actor Whitaker (the first was the much different "Strapped" for HBO), and sometimes his style is so laid-back, it feels as if no one is directing at all. "Exhale's" pace is so leisurely and undemanding that a beginning actress like Houston doesn't make that different an impression than a top-drawer professional like Angela Bassett.
Grounded in a smooth, wall-to-wall soundtrack written by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and performed by numerous artists, "Waiting to Exhale" is easy listening for the eyes if you're in the mood and aren't too demanding. A good man may or may not be hard to find, but films about the search will always find an audience.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some strong sexuality. Times guidelines: frank scenes of comic sex.
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'Waiting to Exhale'
Whitney Houston: Savannah
Angela Bassett: Bernadine
Loretta Devine: Gloria
Lela Rochon: Robin
Gregory Hines: Marvin
Dennis Haysbert: Kenneth
Mykelti Williamson: Troy
A Deborah Schindler/Ezra Swerdlow production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Forest Whitaker. Producers Ezra Swerdlow, Deborah Schindler. Executive producers Terry McMillan, Ronald Bass. Screenplay Terry McMillan & Ronald Bass, based on the novel by Terry McMillan. Cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita. Editor Richard Chew. Costumes Judy L. Ruskin. Music Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Production design David Gropman. Art director Marc Fisichella. Set decorator Michael W. Foxworthy. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.