In its first five minutes "The Wood" looks likeit's going to be a breaking-the-fourth-wall disaster, as Omar Epps ("TheMod Squad") narrates to camera, explainingto the audience that it's two hours and ticking until his best buddy'snuptials and the groom is AWOL.
Epps is not a good narrator -- at least at first. He lookslike he missed a rehearsal and has been stuck reading cue cards.
But the day is saved with the entrance of Richard T. Jones("Event Horizon"), as another groomsman who helpsEpps find their cold-footed friend (Taye Diggs) and talk him back to thealter.
"Who the hell you talkin' to?" Jones asks, staringblankly down the camera lens, and the ice is broken. Epps and "TheWood" both slip into character for a funny, if familiar, urban "WonderYears"-fashioned film of fond flashbacks and puberty cliches.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa from a script he penned while sellingshoes at the Beverly Hills Niketown, "The Wood" is a semi-autobiographicalremembrance of semi-suburban Inglewood (hence the title), Calif. in the'80s. It follows two tracks -- the junior high school backstory of thesethree friends and the race to get Diggs to the church on time -- both ofwhich have ups and downs but come together in genuine portrayals of friendshipand a lot of great laughs.
In the present, Epps and Jones discover Diggs ("HowStella Got Her Groove Back") passed outin his tuxedo on an understanding ex-girlfriend's couch and have to soberhim up and get him thinking about whether or not he should be going throughwith this wedding if he's going to behave like this.
In the course of cleaning him up, they talk frankly (Diggsconfronts his friends about the ruthless ribbing they gave him when heproposed) and facetiously about growing up together, leading to jumps inand out of the bulk of the movie, which takes place in the era of Guess?jackets and Jheri curls.
Very much a rookie effort -- with many shopworn, but proven,narrative techniques (the story is told from the new kid in school's POV,the pretty girl is introduced in hair-tossing slow motion) -- Famuyiwamay be inexperienced, but he understands subtlety (the '80 costumes areaccurately ugly, but incidental) and he knows what makes audiences smile.His story taps into adolescent memories and wedding jitters common enoughand comedic enough that even with its urban themes (it's being marketedas a "black movie"), the tale is universal.
Frequently "The Wood" falls back on pretty oldmaterial. In one scene the younger Epps (Sean Nelson from "Fresh")is asked to address the class while making a tent in his jeans. Anotherhas him slow dancing at arm's length for the same reason. But the youngwriter-director has an eye for the fresh angle on these second hand goods.For example, he gets a big laugh by throwing matador music over a scenein which Nelson, on a dare, angles to grab a girl's ass in the schoolyard.
Later -- after an apology and a good whooping from heraspiring gang-banger brother -- that girl becomes his girlfriend, an on-again-off-againaffection that carries through to the modern-day story. (The movie's funniestrunning gag is the way her brother becomes a pal an coaches Nelson on scoringwith his sister.)
It doesn't hurt that Famuyiwa has found himself a superiorcast -- even if the younger actors hardly resemble their 30-ish counterpartsat all. In the present day story, Epps, Jones and especially the supernaturallyhandsome Diggs invite the audience into their neighborhood triad. You almostwant to talk to the screen (depending on the audience, you just might)because you feel you know them so well. The young actors playing theseguys in the '80s have a real knack for the nervousness and false bravadoof their age, and are not afraid to look foolish for the sake of authenticity.
Although it might have been more polished in the handsof an experienced director, "The Wood" feels true to itself withFamuyiwa's small flaws where they stand.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th July 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $25.1M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: MTV Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Fresh: 34 Rotten: 22
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Omar Epps as Mike, Richard T. Jones as Slim, Taye Diggs as Roland, Malinda Williams as Young Alicia, Sean Nelson as Young Mike, Duane Finley as Young Slim, Trent Cameron as Young Roland, De'Aundre Bonds as Stacey, Tamala Jones as Tanya, Sanaa Lathan as Alicia, LisaRaye McCoy as Lisa