Judging by the humongous crowd that gathered at the Indianapolis promo screening for writer/director Malcolm D. Lee's The Best Man Holiday, there's definitely a market for a follow-up to Lee's 1999 hit film The Best Man, a similarly themed film about a group of African-American friends who gather for the wedding of up-and-coming football player Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun).
This film is set in the very real world of fifteen years later and the majority of the original film's key players return for this holiday gathering.
Football star Lance is on the verge of record-breaking and retirement from the NFL while his still beautiful wife Mia takes care of their gorgeous estate and even more impossibly perfect four children. Harper (Taye Diggs) is still trying to follow-up on the success of his early writing career, but his career is seemingly on the downturn having been released from his professorship and having had his latest manuscript rejected by the publisher. In the meantime, his wife Robyn (Sanaa Lathan) is eight months pregnant with their first child and refuses to pull back on her workaholic ways as a leading chef. Jordan (Nia Long) is a hotshot network executive too wrapped up in her career to see the love of her life, Brian (Michael Cibrian), standing right beside her while Julian (Harold Perrineau) and spouse Candace (Regina Hall) are on the verge of losing their own school after an unexpected Youtube scandal creeps up on them. Finally, Quentin (Terrence Howard) is now a music impresario while Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) has discovered fame as one of the Real Housewives of Westchester.
Whew. Got that?
For the film's first hour or so, Lee actually manages everything quite nicely with The Best Man Holiday finding a fairly nice balance between its raunch-lite comedy and more melodramatic storylines. Unfortunately, in the film's latter half it's as if every idea that Lee had running around in his mind is let loose and suddenly it's like we're watching Lee play around a cinematic paintball as he shoots ideas at the big screen in rapid-fire succession. While the storylines become a tad overwhelming, Lee's terrific cast ultimately saves the film from ever crashing largely owing to their immense likability and spirited performances.
It's not particularly surprising that among the original film's key players that Terrence Howard and Morris Chestnut have likely experienced the most cinematic success. Howard's Quentin is easily the film's highlight, a delightful mixture of naughty meets nice with just a hint of genuine emotional gravity tossed in to make it all matter. The Best Man was really Howard's break-out performance and now with an Oscar nomination to his name for Hustle & Flow, Howard makes the most of his too brief performance here. While Chestnut occasionally seems to be channeling Channing Tatum with how often he takes off his shirt, his performance as Lance possesses a nicely stoic machismo that becomes increasingly vulnerable as the film progresses and a certain secret is revealed.
The best moments in The Best Man Holiday come courtesy of the film's quieter moments, though that's not to say that De Sousa's rambunctiousness and Howard's over-the-top antics aren't a blast to watch ... they definitely are. It's just to say that The Best Man Holiday is a much finer film when it's truly examining the human experience without the unnecessary distractions of formulaic flirtations and half-baked sleazy antics. The relationship between Harper and Lance, which you may recall as being tainted by Harper's having slept with Mia, is an intriguing friendship dance even if the central premise driving their reunion is drawn out to ridiculous and unnecessary proportions.
For all the ways that The Best Man Holiday is an improvement over its predecessor, there are a few occasions when Lee really drops the ball in groan inducing ways. While it's completely plausible that these characters have been forgotten in the past fifteen years, the film's opening montage here is stunningly cliche'd and laughable. There are also at least three occasions when unnamed characters just suddenly show up for a single scene then quietly disappear only to never been seen again and, no, I'm not talking about crowd scenes.
For example, there's a woman who shows up about 30 minutes into the film helping to cook in the kitchen despite our having been told already that the kitchen help had been injured at the last minute.
She's never seen again.
In another case, an older man suddenly shows up and is playing piano for the children for the obligatory "cute children sing a song at Christmas" scene.
Who was he? Where did he come from? Where did he go?
It also seemed weird that despite their being five children in the home, they always managed to disappear at just the opportune time for sexy antics, adult conversations and mega-conflicts.
While these minor issues certainly didn't trash the film, they did distract from an otherwise entertaining and enjoyable effort.
My gut feeling tells me that a good majority of the folks who will crowd the multiplexes this opening weekend to catch The Best Man Holiday will be more than willing to forgive its flaws and are likely to elevate the film to even greater box-office heights than its predecessor.
While The Best Man Holiday is far from flawless, it's a solid and reasonably entertaining effort thanks to its winning cast and Lee's ability to weave humor and heart into even the most serious moments. It's easy to fault Lee for his excesses, but he deserves kudos for infusing this first holiday flick of the season with an abundance of hope and heart and life-affirming lessons about friendship, forgiveness and faith.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic