By Rob Blackwelder
Homogenized, sterilized and clearly revised by test-audience scoring, "The Next Best Thing" is a disingenuous, emotionally deficient comedy-drama about an earthy yoga teacher who has a baby with a gay friend after a night of booze-fueled accidental amour.
Starring mismatched Madonna and Rupert Everett as the atypical parents who decide to live as a family and raise their son together, there is a core of sincerity in the script that is lead to slaughter by the studio's desire to pat itself on the back for being edgy without losing ticket sales to the lowest common denominator crowd.
The story starts well enough, with our unusual couple commiserating over failed relationships by getting hammered on margaritas one evening, then waking up the next day in a compromising position. Next thing they know, Abbie (Madonna) is knocked up, Robert (Everett) embraces the responsible daddy role, and they move in together -- much to the amazement of friends and family.
A skillfully edited passage-of-time montage soon drops us off at their son's 6th birthday as questions about daddy's lifestyle arise and are rapidly deflected in favor of familial conflicts when mommy finds a boyfriend (Benjamin Bratt). Daddy suddenly feels like a third wheel.
Directed by John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Eye for an Eye"), "Next Best Thing" is oozing unrealized potential for comedy, candor and breaking new mainstream ground. But its creaky, all-consuming insistence on its characters' normalcy entombs everything interesting about them in contrived schlock and transparent gloss-over techniques.
This picture could be subtitled "How Hollywood Can Ruin a Good Idea In Five Easy Steps."
Step One: Hire Madonna to play the female lead, thus ensuring the most paper-thin portrayal of emotions.
Step Two: Shoot her in soft focus with shafts of light across her eyes so frequently that the audience starts laughing every time she has a closeup. (For good measure, throw in unmotivated point-of-view camera shots, Dutch angles and other gimmicky and wildly distracting visuals.)
Step Three: Stick the terrific Rupert Everett in a charmless, cliché-riddled version of his twinkling, gay adviser role from "My Best Friend's Wedding," then add a few scenes of him reading to his son and assume that will suffice as a depiction of exemplary parenting.
Step Four: Just in case the whole dad's-gay-and-it's-OK theme isn't clear enough, weigh down the plot with a barrage of unrelated acceptance messages, like an AIDS funeral where the deceased's in-denial biological family scowls judgmentally at his lover and friends.
Step Five: When the inevitable romance between Madonna and Bratt threatens the balance of this unusual household, escalate it from simple conflict to ugly sniping so rapidly that every adult character becomes unsympathetic -- nay, detestable -- for the last third of the movie. Yet somehow expect the audience to remain attached to them.
By the time the surprising custody battle rolls around in the last couple reels, you're feeling sorry for the kid (Malcolm Stumpf) no matter what the outcome.
"The Next Best Thing" has moments of sweetness and humor, but mostly at the hands of secondary characters like Robert's HIV-positive friend played by Neil Patrick Harris, and his mother and father (Vanessa Redgrave and Josef Sommer). Strangely, Abbie's family is never even mentioned.
Even more strangely, after Abbie takes the boy and moves in with Bratt, the film loses track of them almost completely. Until the badly staged courtroom scenes that are the bulk of the last act, we're stuck with Everett's sulking (and suddenly scheming) mug for almost an entire reel.
Had it been produced independently, without the burden of high-profile stars and risk-allergic studio bottom-liners hovering around every moment, "The Next Best Thing" might have been a good little niche movie. It's the well-intentioned but neutralizing attempt to make a middle-America crossover piece that sabotages the story's empathetic integrity.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd March 2000
Box Office Worldwide: $24.4M
Distributed by: Paramount Home Video
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures, Lakeshore Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 19%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 74
IMDB: 4.6 / 10
Director: John Schlesinger
Starring: Madonna as Abbie Reynolds, Rupert Everett as Robert Whittaker, Benjamin Bratt as Ben Cooper, Malcolm Stumpf as Sam, Josef Sommer as Richard Whittaker, Suzanne Krull as Annabel, Linda Larkin as Kelly
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