There is something about Queen Latifah that feels just right.
Queen Latifah's new film, Just Wright, isn't brilliant cinema. It's not destined for a slew of year-end cinema awards, with the possible exception of some well deserved recognition with the NAACP Image Awards.
See, that's the thing with Queen Latifah and that's what makes her, in this critic's estimation, such an extraordinary gift for contemporary cinema. While her films, especially those such as Just Wright where she serves as both a performer and producer, may not qualify as groundbreaking, earth-shattering cinema they do, almost without fail, manage to entertain while making sure virtually everyone in the audience feels better leaving the theater than when they walked in.
That's something. That's something special.
Just Wright may not be a masterful film, but it's an entertaining film with a positive, love-affirming and feel good message that will have you feeling better when you leave the theater than when you walked in.
In the film, Queen Latifah plays diehard New Jersey Nets fan Leslie Wright, a 35-year-old inner-city physical therapist who is passionate about her job, equally as passionate about finding the right man yet steadfast in her refusal to compromise her values along the way while her far more willing to compromise sister, Morgan (Paula Patton, Precious), is more than willing to do whatever it takes to become an NBA wife.
When a chance encounter at a gas station brings Leslie face-to-face with Nets star Scott McKnight (Common, Date Night), Leslie dares to wonder if her dreams might be coming true in the most extraordinary of ways before Morgan steps in and steps on Leslie's dreams once again. When a devastating knee injury threatens to derail McKnight's career in a contract year, Leslie's professional skills may prove to be the best therapy of all for both she and McKnight.
If everything in Just Wright sounds horribly cliche'd and predictable, it is.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Just Wright is a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy without an ounce of acting muscle flexed, featuring a character that Queen Latifah could do in her sleep and dreadfully underwritten supporting characters that largely waste the film's gifted supporting cast.
Yet, despite Just Wright's immense flaws, the film works on the strength of Queen Latifah's lively and spirited performance and that same previously mentioned supporting cast that somehow manages to blend together as a cohesive unit so that Just Wright becomes a surprisingly satisfying an affirming film that may prove to be the perfect remedy for audiences searching for a date flick rather than another action rehash like Robin Hood.
While Queen Latifah could, unquestionably, be Leslie Wright in her sleep, to her credit she embodies Leslie with a spirit and zest and heart that are appealing even when Sanaa Hamri's direction and Michael Elliott's script themselves prove to be unimaginative and formulaic.
Latifah's not alone in the surprisingly strong performance department here, with Paula Patton adding surprising heft as Leslie's beautiful sister who seemingly gets all the breaks. James Pickens, Jr. has some nice moments as Leslie's always loving father, while Phylicia Rashad turns on the maternal charm as McKnight's ever protective mother. It was nice to see Pam Grier front and center, though one wishes screenwriter Michael Elliott had added a bit more meat to her character.
In his first showing as a leading man, rapper Common proves to have a magnetic film presence if not quite the emotional range needed to really convince as an NBA all-star who hasn't forgotten his roots and who longs for a truly human connection while being surrounded by all the trappings of super stardom. While his more emotional scenes felt a touch lacking, Common and Latifah have a comfortable chemistry that helped sell the relationship and his performance was appealing enough to make you root for him by film's end.
The camera work of Terry Stacey (Dear John) is winning and vibrant, while Just Wright serves up a host of NBA cameos sure to please basketball fans including the likes of Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Bobby Simmons, Jr., Jalen Rose, Rajon Rondo, Kenny Smith, Elton Brand and Stuart Scott with appearances by Marv Albert, Mike Fratello, Nets owner Rod Thorn (who actually just sold the team this past week) and jazz great Terence Blanchard tossed in for good measure.
There's another, more subtle tidbit of musical history present in the film. "Wendy & Lisa," Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman formerly of Prince & The Revolution fame, contribute the film's excellent original music.
Just Wright won't please everyone. The reviews? They are likely to be modest at best given the film's formulaic script and Sanaa Hamri's surprisingly methodical direction, given the spark she offered the surprise hit Something New. Yet, there's something to be said for films like Just Wright that plainly and simply try to give audiences a couple hours of heartfelt, feel-good entertainment with the happy ending that never seems to happen in real life but that we all find ourselves still wanting to believe in. In a Queen Latifah film, and most assuredly in THIS Queen Latifah film, love is always possible and even the people who disappointment you the most are ultimately redeemed.
A predictable film?
Sure. Just Wright is predictable.
Just Wright will also make you smile and, let's face it, sometimes smiles are hard to come by.
Sometimes, the best films are the films that leave you feeling the best.
Just Wright, indeed.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic