In 1999, a “dramedy” called “The Best Man” hit theaters starring some of the hottest young African-American actors in Hollywood while marking the writing-directing debut of Spike Lee’s cousin, Malcolm D. Lee. It went on to make a tidy profit of $34 million against a $9 million budget and launched the careers of Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan and Regina Hall to greater heights.
With its highly positive portrayal of African-American twenty-somethings who are successful in the white-collar world, as opposed to gangsters or jive-talking clowns in the vein of Chris Tucker in the “Rush Hour” movies, “The Best Man” became a trendsetter and perennial favorite on DVD and cable TV. This weekend, the stars and Lee have teamed up for a long-overdue reunion film that is a vast improvement on the original in every way.
The first film followed its characters as they came together for the wild wedding weekend of Lance (Chestnut), a pro football running back who was getting married to Mia (Hall). Conflicts began when Harper (Diggs), a writer, was busted by his friends for writing a juicy novel that was a thinly veiled tell-all about his friends’ darkest secrets and romantic entanglements, with a mix of funny and serious consequences ensuing over the course of the weekend.
In the new film, the gang is getting back together for Christmas weekend at the sprawling mansion of Lance and Mia, as Lance is approaching his final NFL game — and the chance to set the all-time rushing record — on Christmas Day. But all is not well, as Mia is secretly very ill and Harper, who just lost his New York University professor gig, has his latest novel rejected by his own agent.
Desperate to make money while his wife Robyn (Lathan) is about to give birth after multiple miscarriages, Harper decides to sneak his way through the weekend, taking notes and trying to convince Lance to let him write his biography. The problem is Lance is still angry at Harper for having had a one-night stand with Mia prior to their marriage, and for the betrayal of sneaking their lives into his first book.
The other characters have well-drawn conflicts as well, but don’t make the mistake of thinking “The Best Man Holiday” is overly serious or morose. Rather, Lee and his ace cast find an impeccable balance of laughter and tears throughout the film, which has an impressive energy from the start, while its predecessor dragged through its overlong first hour before catching fire in its second. Additionally, the movie’s zippy opening scenes set new audiences up perfectly to understand the new film even if they haven’t seen the original.
As the comic foils of the cast, Howard, Perrineau and Melissa De Sousa (as Shelby, a gold-digging wild woman who had past flings with both of those men before becoming a “Real Housewife of Atlanta”) steal the show. Howard has gone the furthest among the cast, with an Oscar nomination for 2005’s “Hustle and Flow” and a coveted role as the main sidekick to Robert Downey Jr. in the first “Iron Man,” but this turn should establish him as a leading man in more comedies if there is any justice in Tinseltown.
Lee manages to use the Christmastime setting to genuine effect, rather than feeling like a clichéd backdrop, because the struggle between Lance and Mia’s bedrock Christian faith and Harper’s agnosticism forms an important subplot in the film. But while the movie is unabashedly in favor of faith, it is more than balanced by plenty of racy jokes and implied sexual shenanigans, creating a mix of the sacred and the profane that I have rarely seen pulled off to such perfect effect.
I went to see “The Best Man Holiday” with my friend Clive, an African-American man whom I also saw “Fruitvale Station” with this summer for a cover story on that racially charged film. He asked me before the “Best” screening why I had chosen this movie to review, expressing surprise that a Caucasian reviewer would care about a film so obviously targeting the black community.
The answer to that is twofold. On the one hand, yes, “The Best Man Holiday” has this weekend to itself at the box office as the only major-studio release of the week. But far more importantly, it is so well done and even standard-setting for the romantic-comedy genre that it completely transcends race and becomes a thoroughly universal movie that anyone could and should enjoy.