The Next Best Thing
Director: John Schlesinger. Cast: Rupert Everett, Madonna, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Vartan, Illeana Douglas, Lynn Redgrave, Neil Patrick Harris, Josef Sommer, Malcolm Stumpf, Stacy Edwards. Screenplay: Thomas Ropelewski.

Watching The Next Best Thing is, I suppose, the next best thing to getting a tetanus shot, or being hit by a small car. More to the point, sitting through the film is the very same thing as watching Kramer vs. Kramer, already not a film I am eager to see reprised, get remade as a dismal half-comedy about a gay man who conceives and fathers a child with his best friend, a straight woman. You couldn't very well arrive at this picture with more good will than I did—I love Madonna, I think Rupert Everett can be charming when he feels like trying, and I consider supporting actors like Illeana Douglas and Michael Vartan big pluses to any film. In this entire cast, only Benjamin Bratt, late of Julia Roberts' love life, seems to me charismatically challenged. Still, despite all this positive predisposition, The Next Best Thing proves to be a picture not even a mother could love—not even an insensitive, capricious, utterly unbelievable mother impersonated by Madonna at her most gratingly self-conscious, which is certainly saying something.

Madonna's thirst to be noticed, to be hip, which provokes her to such creativity and verve in live performances, strangely continues to weigh down her screen performances like a big, fat anchor. The woman is incapable of delivering a comic line without winking or waiting for a laugh track; as a result, the only moments in The Next Best Thing that veer anywhere close to believability are the scenes in which Vartan, as Madonna's departing boyfriend Kevin, and Everett, as her best friend and progenitive one-night stand, get fed up with Madonna's antics and elect to go it alone. Their frustration in these scenes achieves a verisimilitude of which Madonna's agent should take note—if Madonna can even be imagined retaining an agent. Watching The Next Best Thing offers strong evidence that she doesn't.

While she's off lousing up her character and many of her scenes, poor Rupert Everett is left to salvage what he can of a script that starts as light, prosaic farce before rivaling Bounce for the year's most unnecessary and unconvincing courtroom sequence. (By comparison to these two turkeys, the scenes in Dancer in the Dark when Björk and Joel Grey soft-shoe atop the witness stand and jury box seems like Rossellinian realism.) Everett, quite possibly cinema's most laconic and often bored-seeming sex symbol, projects a much more interesting version of self-consciousness in his screen performances than his on-screen and off-screen pal. Like her, Everett is also desperate to be liked, but he can occasionally pretend not to notice the audience, and his work in films such as this one and An Ideal Husband, though hardly the stuff of great acting, bears unmistakable whiffs of sadness that at least render him recognizably human. He also interacts charmingly with Malcolm Stumpf, the child actor playing his and Madonna's son, such that we believe his distress when he later finds himself at risk of losing custody.

But that's almost a side note, because by that point in the movie, The Next Best Thing has violated just about every principle and guideline that might have made it redeemable as entertainment, if not as motion picture art. The opening "comedic" sequences aren't funny, and the compulsory Tearful Events (a funeral, a split between friends, a split between lovers, a reunion between friends) can't muster up a shred of pathos. A gratuitous and unnecessary AIDS plot reminds us that Hollywood still prefers to represent homosexuality as a garden path leading straight to destruction, thankfully dotted with plenty of bon mots and objets d'art along the way. Movies about gay men in bed with straight women (The Object of My Affection) and movies about adoption (Losing Isaiah) typically have a nightmare of a time deciding on a tone and a point of view, and blending the two genres doesn't seem to have helped. By the time Lynn Redgrave popped up looking lost, and the director credit for John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday) rolled up on the screen, bafflement had ceded entirely to impatience, and I just wanted the damn thing to be over. Note to Madonna: in the last year, your new film flopped, and your new CD, which is marvelous and original, was a great success. Take the hint. Grade: C–

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