Film Review: The Best Man HolidayA ton of bonhomie and abrasive laughs easily carry this holiday entrée over its more heavy-handed sentimental portions, delivering solid, audience-pleasing entertainment.
Fourteen years after introducing his likeably argumentative bunch of buppie best buds in The Best Man, writer-director Malcolm D. Lee exuberantly reunites them for the holidays. Harper (Taye Diggs), now married to a pregnant Robin (Sanaa Lathan), is an established writer, but suffering from a severe block which has negatively affected his finances. They make their Christmas visit to the insanely palatial home of Lance (Morris Chestnut), millionaire New York Giant, and his wife Mia (Monica Calhoun), Harper's former flame, who, unbeknownst to all save Lance, has cancer.
The rest of the gang also shows up: Jordan (Nia Long), Harper's college BFF, now a successful TV producer, with her white boyfriend Brian (Eddie Cibrian), and Julian (Harold Perrineau) and wife Candy (Regina Hall), who are still dealing with her murky stripper past, especially now that he is desperately trying to raise funds for his school. Finally, there are the group's two wild cards: shallow, bling-y Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), Julian's former girlfriend, now the star of a TV reality show, and blithely unregenerate bad boy Quentin (Terrence Howard), her sometime guilty pleasure hook-up.
Lee has happily retained his considerable skill with ensemble comedy; his trenchantly observed, often audacious yet always real work is infinitely preferable to the strained shenanigans of Tyler Perry or the heavy-handed, agenda-ridden approach of Spike Lee when tackling similar ground. The film is spiked with juicy moments, like the gang's bemused, jocular reactions to Brian, who admirably more than holds his own in these perilous waters. With all the competitive rivalry, back-biting and even blackmailing going on among them all, it's easy to think "With friends like these…" yet Lee knows exactly how far to take the abrasiveness, much of it stemming from ancient grudges, and mines it for abundant laughs, as when Julian and Quentin engage in a backseat car brawl that is hilarious in its complete childishness. The distaff side have their moments too, like a wonderfully raunchy discussion of black male endowment among the ladies that elicited guffaws from the audience.
The film turns very sentimental in its final third, with Mia's illness taking precedence, and there's a too-hokey and predictably triumphant climactic football game for which a teary-eyed Lance has left her bedside at her noble request. (I much preferred the quietly moving scene in which she shares a joint with Quentin, giggling at his demolition of her good-girl image.) The reconciliation between Harper and Lance, after a dust-up over the profit-making bio Harper wants to pen about him, adds more sogginess, but such is the good will Lee has firmly established that you are able to tolerate all of this with a relative lack of pain.
Diggs has weathered a bit from the shiny, smooth physical perfection of the earlier film, and aptly conveys Harper's deep inner turmoil and anxiety and, always a rare actor's achievement, is actually convincing as a writer. Chestnut evinces considerable, intimidating strength and charisma, his Mr. Perfect image effectively cracking apart as Mia's condition worsens. Howard, oozing raffish charm, again steals every scene he's in, a metrosexual nonpareil, with his husky purr of a voice and slumbrous sensuality. At a Christmas-party talent show, when the guys ingratiatingly perform a delightfully cheesy boy-band routine, the tilt with which he sports his fedora is irresistible.
The real glory of Lee's oeuvre, however, is its plethora of strong women, who are anything but mere arm candy or concerned, domestic doormats. One senses that something is off with Mia from her first, slightly wraith-like appearance in an unflattering wig, and Calhoun gives a heartbreakingly convincing afflicted performance, informed with a quiet yet piercing dignity. She utterly rises to the challenge of a calculatedly surefire tearjerker of a moment when her kids warble "O Holy Night," and she suddenly, fervently joins in, and I defy anyone to remain unmoved by it. Lathan and Long are both super-attractive and nicely matched as Harper's two loves; the look Lathan gives Long when she comments about what a big baby she must be expecting says volumes. Even more openly combative are Hall and De Sousa, and they have a blisteringly good catfight, which reminds us that such scratching, hair-pulling contretemps have always been a comically potent cinematic guilty pleasure. I do wish more had been made of Shelby's “Real Housewives of Westchester County” gig, since it seems such fertile farcical material.