Another movie, not as awful or deluded as this one, might one day find better use for the easygoing vibe between Queen Latifah and Common, the stars of Just Wright, a romantic comedy (for the ladies) with basketball and cameoing NBA players in it (for the fellas). That absolutely no chemistry exists between them as love interests is the first of the many deadly flaws in a film that also demands we believe the New Jersey Nets could become Eastern Conference champions.
Earthy, virtuous physical therapist and hoops fanatic Leslie Wright (Latifah) shares her house with her hyper-femme, gold-digging childhood friend, Morgan (Precious teacher Paula Patton). Morgan schemes to marry a pro-baller and become a brand; Leslie just wants to find a man who thinks of her as more than an asexual homegirl. The p.t. meets Net Scott McNight (Common) at a gas station, notices the Joni Mitchell CD in his car, thinks "gentleman" and develops a crush — but Rules-playing Morgan gets the All-Star's marriage proposal. No pheromones could ever be secreted in a love triangle this square. A midpoint ligament injury and Leslie's ministrations allow thick, plain girls to triumph over thin, heavily done-up ones: Leslie and Scott share cocoa bread, a quick kiss and, eventually, a bed (depicted as a postcoital snuggle for about three seconds).
The dialogue of Just Wright, like that of pretty much every recent American rom-com, strings together stale slang, flat jokes, redundancies and the psychotherapeutic mantras preached on daytime TV. But writer Michael Elliot, who also scripted 2002's Like Mike and Brown Sugar, distinguishes himself as a crafter of particularly wince-making lines, putting words into Latifah's mouth that she probably hasn't uttered since Living Single went off the air: "Dad, you are too fly" and "I'm a Jersey girl. I gotta represent!" Morgan is given special powers: "Some women have gaydar. I have ho-dar." And Scott, discussing his recuperation under Leslie's watch during a sports-channel interview, beautifully paraphrases Dickens's famous opening line: "She made the worst three months of my life the best three months of my life."
There's little that Sanaa Hamri — or any director — can do with material this bad. Hamri, who made such an auspicious helming debut with Something New (2006), a fresh, smart romantic comedy about interracial dating and class clash, uses split-screen montages a few times to try to excite viewers' eyes after their ears have been abused. Scenes of Scott on the court move swiftly. But Hamri also makes some bad decisions all her own, including pointless shots of high-end Manhattan storefronts and the city skyline and an indecisiveness about when — or how — moments that don't involve a basketball should end.
To be fair, though, it's impossible for those episodes to ever really get started. Latifah, who is also one of the producers of Just Wright, is a reliably charismatic presence in almost every film she's in, generating (and reciprocating) energy with co-stars as varied as LL Cool J, Gérard Depardieu (both in 2006's Last Holiday) and Dakota Fanning (in 2008's The Secret Life of Bees). In his first starring role after four years of playing supporting thugs, Common, sly, handsome and deferential to the Queen, shows hints of the fine leading man he could someday be. Together onscreen, these two make excellent pals, but when Leslie and Scott's relationship shifts from platonic to romantic, it's as weird and wrong as watching siblings kiss each other on the mouth. The buddy-movie potential of a Latifah and Common pairing is endless. So is their first film together.
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