love jones -- writer/director Theodore Witcher's debut film, which won the Audience Award at January's Sundance Film Festival -- takes a lucid look at love, African-American style. Or to be more exact, contemporary, urban, upscale African-American style. It may have the occasional dollop of raw sexual humor, but on the line from, say, Booty Call to Sense and Sensibility -- if anyone can figure out how to draw such a line -- it charts considerably closer to the latter.
Larenz Tate (Menace II Society, The Inkwell) stars as Darius Lovehall, a twentysomething Chicago writer who quits his day job in hopes of finishing his novel before his savings run out. Darius and his buddies, including Sheila (Bernadette Clarke), hang out at the Sanctuary, a jazz-and-poetry club, where they argue about life and love. One evening, Darius spots beautiful photographer Nina (Nia Long, from Friday and Made in America) at the bar. So smitten is he that he loses his usual cool demeanor and spills his drink on her. Making a quick recovery, he heads for the mike, where he recites a sexy poem he renames in her honor.
Darius seems to have reasonably slick moves, but Nina, still recovering from her recent breakup with longtime beau Marvin (Khalil Kain), is standoffish. When Darius runs into her a second time, he decides to be more persistent. (In one of the movie's few missteps, his persistence briefly seems to tip over into really psycho territory.) Still, it doesn't take long before the two are in the sack together, with magical results.
"It was like his dick just talked to me," Nina confides to her best friend, Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson).
"What did it say?"
"Nina. O-o-o-o, Ne-e-e-e-nah ...."
While each of them suspects the other might just be the One, neither is going to be the first to say so. In fact, except for a few brief and vulnerable confessions to friends, they both insist that "this ain't no love thing," they're "just kickin' it."
Eventually, Nina puts Darius to the test by announcing she's heading to New York to visit Marvin and sort out her feelings. What she wants is for Darius to go ballistic, but he plays it cool. Of course, his real reaction shows through, but Nina ignores it -- which makes her kind of a jerk. (Since when is possessive jealousy a good thing?) And she's even more of a jerk when she returns to Chicago and doesn't immediately call Darius. (I guess my sympathies are showing -- though, to be fair, Darius has his fair share of jerky moments later on.) That sets in motion a game of seesaw, with the two lovers playing defense for most of the rest of the film.
love jones is billed as a romantic comedy, but it plays out more like a straight romance, peppered with comic moments along the way. And despite its explicit sexuality, it suggests that modern romance may be even more constrained by inane social convention than it was during Jane Austen's time. For all the ups and downs Witcher runs Darius and Nina through -- and some viewers may feel he pushes it one cycle too far -- they can never make their commitment absolutely explicit: Neither can utter the words "I love you." It makes you wonder just how long the relationship will last, which is precisely the point.
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Witcher makes an almost totally assured directorial debut. His lapses are minor, more a matter of missed opportunities than anything else. A dance-hall number two-thirds of the way through could have been really great at twice the length: Just when it starts to build energy, it's over. And while the film spends a certain amount of time on a subplot about the failing marriage of Darius's friend Savon (Isaiah Washington), it never gives us any insight into the personal life of the far more intriguing Sheila.
Still, this is an enjoyable, perfectly engaging little film, in large part thanks to Tate and Long, both of whom the camera loves. It's also a pleasant change of pace -- one of those rare all-African-American films that is set outside the 'hood, possesses no neo-Stepin Fetchit shuck-and-jive and doesn't bury its story underneath a political agenda. And it makes a point to acknowledge roots that predate gangsta rap, both in the dance-hall scene and in its use of classic jazz and '60s and '70s R&B. love jones revels in its culture -- in the sounds, the slang and, yes, the soul.
Directed by Theodore Witcher. With Larenz Tate, Nia Long, Isaiah Washington and Leonard Roberts.