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May 12, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2006 |

No one believes me when I tell them I’m a bit of a romantic. They shake their heads and usually respond with something like, “You mean cynic/pessimist/jackass.” And while I can’t argue that those are often true assessments, the fact remains that I am indeed capable of enjoying a good love story, and even getting downright misty from time to time. First-time director Sanaa Hamri’s Something New is a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy, and any deference it makes to the genre by way of a predictable plot are more than compensated for by the intellect of the screenplay, which manages to discuss race relations with far more skill and deftness than other recent films.

Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is an uptight workaholic, too afraid of screwing up at work to let her guard down at the office, and too afraid of never finding love to let her guard down anywhere else. Screenwriter Kriss Turner gives her three best friends, whose names are unimportant but could loosely be referred to as Sassy, Vixen, and Dependable. Nothing new by romantic comedy standards, true, but the genre isn’t about rewriting any rules. In fact, the genre by definition is devoid of suspense, since anyone with half a brain knows that the two leads will end up together, no matter what happens between the beginning and end of the film. The point of the story isn’t that they wind up with each other, but how they got there, and in this Something New does indeed provide a fresh spin on an old tale.

From the start, Turner’s screenplay is remarkably adept at dealing with Kenya’s mixed feelings about race, marriage, and relationships. She shows up at a Starbucks next to a Magic Johnson’s T.G.I. Friday’s to meet a blind date, along the way casting glances at the ring fingers of some of the men outside. Her blind date, Brian (Simon Baker), turns out to be white, and Kenya is shocked at the turn of events, not to mention mortified about being seen on a date with a white man. As they walk to a table, she nervously blurts out to an employee, “My brother, how’s Magic treatin’ you?” as if loudly asserting her blackness will soothe what must be an angry crowd around her. Brian calls her on her discomfort, and they stare at each other across the table for a few seconds before she bolts.

She can’t really escape him, though: At an engagement party for a coworker, she comments on the beautiful landscaping, at which point she’s introduced again to Brian, who’s a landscape architect. Kenya winds up hiring him to spruce up the backyard at her new house, off Crenshaw, and Brian has no trouble visiting and working in a neighborhood where he stands out. Brian attempts to flirt with Kenya and pursue her, and she eventually gives in and lets the relationship happen. Happy as they are, though, the inherent tension of their racial divide moves like an uneasy current underneath their time together. As their relationship faces the inevitable rocky start, compounded by their need to come to an understanding about their mutual prejudices, the story unfolds into a genuinely engaging, if not brilliant, story about love, family, and following your heart.

I can’t believe I just wrote that. And I can’t believe I meant it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to trying to carve out realistic characters in a romantic comedy, something inevitably gives. We’re either going to get a multi-layered man pursuing a flaky woman or a complex woman involved with a cardboard cutout of a man. And though Turner, whose credits include “Living Single” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” knows how to write for and about black women, her sketch of Brian turns out to be, well, sketchy. His initial declaration to Kenya that he only sees women, not race, could be chalked up to first-date charm or desire to score, but he remains impossibly winning for at least half the film. There hasn’t been a guy this two-dimensionally flawless since Jay Mohr in Picture Perfect. While Kenya feels rounded and relatable from the start, it takes a while for Brian to feel like he’s got any emotional depth. He finally starts to act like a human when he and Kenya are in the grocery store one evening. They get into a long, drawn-out exchange about race, and it’s one of the most honest conversations on the subject ever filmed.

Going in, I thought I knew what to expect from Something New, but the real atmosphere of the film is quite different than the ads or trailer would lead you to believe. All the jokes from the trailer, when heard in the context of the film, carry much more emotional weight than simple one-liners about interracial relationships. For instance, one night Kenya and Brian are out with another couple, and a woman looks at Brian and remarks to Kenya, “Girl, either you’re gettin’ your swirl on or you got your probation officer with you.” It’s funny on a certain level, yes, but the look in Kenya’s eyes and the twitch in Brian’s arm are marvelous clues to the fact that despite their love, they’ve got more than a few mountains ahead of them. Or the party where a friend of Kenya’s says to Brian, “You ought to feel lucky you’re even invited to this Negro spiritual”; it’s played for laughs in the ads, but the actual scene is fraught with a lot of tension under that cover of humor. It’s a welcome injection of reality into the genre, and it helps elevate the film from disposable to comedy to a genuine social commentary.

In addition to Turner’s sharp screenplay and Hamri’s direction, Baker and Lathan rise to the challenge and more than carry the story, their chemistry keeping things from getting bogged down in race politics. It helps that they’re both relative unknowns, since bigger stars might have biased the viewer and shifted the focus away from the love story. Lathan’s somewhat sketchy resume (Alien vs. Predator) should get a boost from this, as should Baker’s, whose biggest role to date was co-starring in The Ring Two. They’ve worked their way up to leading status, and deserve it. Something New is a small but enjoyable film: The jokes are funny, the characters pleasant to watch, and all’s well that ends well. This time of year, what more can you ask?

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

Something New / Daniel Carlson

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