Uncommon Yet Familiar Romance in ‘love jones’
The unusual thing about Theodore Witcher’s otherwise routine “love jones,” the audience winner at the recent Sundance Film Festival, is its color. Not its film color, although that’s certainly up to snuff. We’re talking about the color of its characters, who are all black.
And what’s so unusual about them is that there isn’t a racial stereotype in the crowd. These are young, middle-class Chicago singles, struggling with the same problems twentysomethings have been struggling with since the sexual revolution--how to combine romance, honesty and intimacy in one relationship. In other words, how to know when they’re in love.
It’s often easier for friends to spot the real thing before the people involved, and, in the case of “love jones,” the audience is among the knowing observers. From the moment writer Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) and photographer Nina Mosley (Nia Long) meet in an upscale bar that hosts nightly poetry readings, we see in their exchange a deeper connection than a potential fling. But do they?
Darius is an egocentric writer who fancies his reputation as a poet Lothario, while Nina is coming out of a long, abusive relationship with little interest in starting another. In that first night at the bar, Darius dedicates a poem, laced with graphic sexual allusions, to Nina, who later thanks him for the thought but reminds him that love is a richer topic for a poet than sex.
Nevertheless, Darius and Nina are soon sleeping together, convincing themselves--and trying to convince their friends--that they’re in a sexual relationship without strings or love. The rest of “love jones” follows the lie from one frustrating breakup to another until the pain of separation makes its case.
This story, of course, has been told in dozens of previous movies and, in ways, “love jones” feels like a copy of another Chicago love story, “About Last Night . . . .” That 1986 film starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore was adapted from David Mamet’s one-act play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” and the play--if not the movie--captured perfectly the dilemma of modern courtship: It’s easier and safer to communicate sexual desire than honest feelings.
It should come as a shock to no one that the dilemma is the same for African Americans. But the plain truth is that nonracial casting is so rare in American movies that “love jones” seems new. Witcher, a recent film school graduate making his debut as both writer and director, includes a few racial references, but, with few changes, the same script could have been used for an all-white production.
New Line deserves credit for taking the chance with a black love story aimed at a traditional mainstream audience, and one hopes the film is successful enough to make “love jones” one of many Hollywood takes on life among middle-class minorities. But commercial rooting aside, it’s not a particularly engaging movie.
There are some effective group scenes with Darius and Nina and their friends, but Witcher’s dialogue and direction more often show the craft than the naturalism he’s after. It is also hard to surrender to a romance with only one sympathetic partner; Darius is much too self-absorbed to give us a real stake in the outcome of his courtship--he sees the love of his life every time he looks in the mirror.
Nina, played with warmth and humor by Long, is by far the smartest, most talented and most mature. She deserves more, and it’s hard to believe her determination to settle for less.
* MPAA rating: R for language and sexuality. Times guidelines: The sexuality is in a romantic context.
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Nia Long: Nina Mosley
Larenz Tate: Darius Lovehall
Bill Bellamy: Isaiah Washington
Bernadette Clark: Sheila
An Addis/Wechsler Production, released by New Line Cinema. Writer-director Theodore Witcher. Producers Nick Wechsler, Jeremiah Samuels. Cinematography Ernest Holzman. Editor Maysie Hoy. Production design Roger Fortune. Music Darryl Jones. Costumes Shawn Barton. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
* In general release.