Seeing Queen Latifah cast as the lead in a romantic comedy is always refreshing. She isn’t what studio execs seem to think they need for a romance to work: skinny and white. They still think that movie-goers won’t accept women who look, you know, real. They love Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Aniston, and the inexplicably busy Katherine Heigl. Seyfried was at least charming in Letters to Juliet, but who looks like her? Jennifer Aniston isn’t particularly pretty, but she’s cute and it doesn’t hurt that she’s white, has a decent body, and is, to many, (but not me) likeable on screen. (I also think she and filmmakers have been milking the sympathy factor for many years – too many years it now seems.) But Katherine Heigl is so lifeless on the screen she looks like someone is pointing a gun at her to make her act. She exudes pretentions of cuteness, something that came naturally to Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz (and now, I think, Amanda Seyfried). Her body and looks (and the potential Grey’s Anatomy cross-over audience) are the only possible reason a casting agent would think of her. Queen Latifah doesn’t meet the physical requirement unimaginative film execs have set but she is still vibrant and refreshing in Just Wright; though I worry that studios will think of her as the exception that proves the rule.
Queen Latifah elevates Just Wright from an average romance movie to something a little better. It isn’t a great movie; she isn’t that good. But the average script is almost single-handedly resuscitated by Ms. Latifah. Armond White of the New York Press, one of the worst paid critics around, slammed her for playing “neo-Mammy” roles. While it’s true that she hasn’t done anything truly challenging or provoking, it is plain wacky to equate her roles with the Mammy stereotype. (But then wacky is White’s specialty.) She plays Leslie Wright, an attractive, but slightly overweight woman who has a good job as a physical therapist, owns property, and loves basketball, especially the New Jersey Nets. I don’t get where Mammy comes in here. The one thing missing in her life, at least according to her mother (Pam Greir, who is oddly wasted in a throw-away part), is a man. She goes on dates, but as much as the guys love talking to her and hanging out with her, she just isn’t what they had in mind physically. Queen Latifah conveys true resignation as she is blown off by another guy at the end of what appeared to be a good date. She isn’t angry or sad, just disappointed once again.
Not once does anyone in this movie question the assumption that a woman’s life is not complete without a man. I know our culture constantly reminds us that life without marriage (forget romance) is worthless. A life alone is by definition one of loneliness. Of course a life, alone or with someone else, is whatever we make of it. But that isn’t what Hollywood is peddling: romance is easier. Enter a love interest for Latifah’s Leslie. And it isn’t just any love interest. He is Scott McKnight, a star player for her beloved Nets. McKnight is played by rapper turned actor Common. He isn’t the strongest actor here, but I think he is saved by some good directing and editing. Overall, despite the weak moments, he has some good moments especially with Queen Latifah.
Essentially this is a Cinderella story. There isn’t a cruel stepmother and stepsisters, but there is an insensitive mother and Morgan (Paula Patton), a godsister (is that even a word?) who is mooching off of Leslie and scheming to bag an NBA player because she is almost 30 and “has to think about her future.” Sexy Morgan diverts Scott’s attention away from Leslie and soon (too soon) he proposes marriage to her. I’m not sure what we as an audience are supposed to think about Scott that he would fall for such contrived nonsense. Morgan made up a series of lies to impress him like that she volunteered at a homeless shelter, but wouldn’t that have come up in subsequent dates and wouldn’t it have become clear that she doesn’t have a clue what goes on in homeless shelters? Hot bodies can blind us for a while, but not for months on end. If Scott is such a great guy he wouldn’t have fallen for Morgan’s tricks. (This then leads to the question: If he is so dopey why would a smart woman like Leslie want him? Romantic comedies always make this mistake. One or both of the pair is always with someone who isn’t nice, isn’t honest, isn’t respectful, etc. I have trouble taking a character seriously when they make rotten relationship choices.)
When McKnight is injured Morgan bails, but Leslie steps up as his physical therapist. Morgan can’t envision a future with a man who may not have a future in the NBA. Leslie is left not just to work on rehabilitating his knee, but also, as is preordained by the genre, to fall in love with him. Of course Morgan will come back at the right time (for the script) because manufactured drama is better than watching a simple story of two people falling in love. This could have been a very good movie had some people behind the camera been bolder and had some faith in their abilities. With such a strong performance by Queen Latifah this could have been a moving romance about a man falling in love with a woman that society tells him isn’t worth his time. Watching him discover her true beauty would have been much more entertaining than going through the paces of a typical romantic comedy when everyone in the audience knows exactly where it will end up.
I doubt many studios, casting directors, or directors will chalk the continued success of Queen Latifah up to a hunger in the United States for movies populated by real people of all shapes, sizes and colors. When was the last time we saw a major Hollywood romantic comedy production with an overweight woman? Overweight men like Seth Rogan, Kevin James, and Jonah Hill are fine, but name the overweight women that aren’t treated as jokes. You can’t. And it’s odd because romantic comedies are geared toward women, but why would they want to see unattractive fat guys with gorgeous skinny girls. But then, they’ve done tons of market research and test screening so I’m sure they think they know more than I do. I’m not sure that they do. Queen Latifah isn’t a fluke. She’s black and large and people want to see that. Where are Latinas (other than Jennifer Lopez)? Where are the Asians? Romantic comedies are so out of touch with the diversity of our country (not to mention the world) that Just Wright should be singled out just for trying to break that down. Unfortunately diverse casting and some strong performances can’t lift this formula picture up past the “just fine” status.