Friday, May 21, 2010

Crazy Love Set Against Backdrop of NBA

Queen Latifah on the red carpet at the Ziegfeld Theater before the world premiere of "Just Wright." Photo by Elisabeth Trydal Andersen.

WHEN the box office results for the weekend of 14-16 May came out Monday morning they showed that “Just Wright” had grossed only $8.3 million (on about 2,100 screens and about 1,800 theaters). As of Wednesday the film had added only an anemic $1.5 million for a total of $9.9 million.

“Just Wright” is the romantic comedy starring Queen Latifah as a physical therapist to Common’s professional basketball player. The lackluster results sure weren’t for lack of good reviews - they have been more positive than not. Publicity-wise, ads for it were all over the tele, and in New York at least print ads were all over town.

Who's to know why the film didn’t do better on its maiden outing, although it is a romantic comedy, which don’t typically open with the kind of slambangpow of, say, an “Iron Man.” Another romantic comedy that also opened last weekend, “Letters to Juliet,” fared worse, though it made more money. To rake in $13.5 million it required some 3,600 screens and 2,968 theaters. Not surprisingly, doing well were two action flicks, box office leader “Iron Man 2” in its second week and “Robin Hood” at second place in its debut with $52 million (10,000 screens/4,390 theaters and $36.1 million (5,700 screens/3,503 locations), respectively.

Yours Truly saw “Just Wright” at its world premiere nearly two weeks ago at the Ziegfeld Theater. (See: and However, I decided to wait a week before making any comments.

QL is the Wright of the film’s title. Leslie is the New Jersey Nets No. 1 fan, possessing encyclopedic knowledge of team history. She is also a huge fan of the franchise’s star player, Scott McKnight (Common). Leslie is a regular at Nets home games. She sits contentedly in the cheap seats tricked out in Nets regalia backseat coaching when necessary, which is often. Her godsister and best friend, Morgan Alexander (Paula Patton) has an interest in basketball, too. Morgan’s professional career goal is to be the wife of an NBA player and she also has an encyclopedic knowledge of her sport.

One night after a game, Morgan ditches Leslie to go off with "colleagues" (other aspiring future basketballer wives) to a party thrown by one of the players. Leslie bids her adieu and heads home in her charming little beat-up Mustang. On the way she stops at a service station for gas. While she’s still there Scott rolls up, chattering so animatedly on his mobile phone that he can’t locate the gas tank in his car – is that a Bentley? Leslie comes to the rescue, a conversation ensues, ending with an invitation to an uncoming party that Morgan would steal, kill and destroy to attend.

At the party Leslie introduces Morgan to Scott, who is instantly smitten. Naturally, he doesn’t realize that he is the prey. In double-quick fashion Morgan and Scott are engaged. Life is Nirvana: Scott has the girl of his dreams and Morgan has the lifestyle of her dreams. Do they live happily ever after? You’ll have to see the film to find out.

“Just Wright” surprised me. I didn’t expect much based on the clips I’d seen. My optimism increased, however, when I discovered a few days before the premiere that Debra Martin Chase (“The Princess Diaries,” The Cheetah Girls, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” franchises) is one of the producers. QL has a producing credit, too. What I found most engaging is screenwriter Michael Elliot’s dialogue. It is obvious that he’s spent a lot of time listening to and observing women. The dialogue, particularly between Leslie and Morgan, is witty and smart, with just the right about of sass. In general here, he doesn't pen clunky, awkward and sometimes downright stupid lines that can produce cringes. And having done screenplays for other films with a basketball theme (“Like Mike” and “Like Mike 2: Streetball”), ME likely felt comfortable with this project.

Of course, no matter how good the writing the actors have to deliver the lines convincingly. They bring it, and director Sanaa Hamri (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” “Something New”) deserves some credit.

QL shines in one of her few good roles since “Chicago.” Often, I don’t find her believable or she is overacting as she did in the dreadful “Bringing Down the House” opposite Steve Martin. Here, one totally buys her as a physical therapist. And she and PP have great chemistry; they’re opposites but their love for each other is palpable. Fresh off her role in “Precious” as a dedicated, no-nonsense teacher in an alternative school for at-risk girls, PP does a delicious comic turn as a selfish, heartless gold-digger.

Those acting lessons that Common’s assistant gave me to know that he is taking are doing well by him. Yet, I wonder how much natural talent he possesses. His was a standout performance as a bodyguard/homey to Jeremy Pivens’ magician in “Smokin’ Aces.” With JP he was menace incarnate; with Alicia Keys’ hitwoman in distress he was virile tenderness. In “Just Wright,” he wears both nobility and vulnerability well.

James Pickens, Jr. (Grey’s Anatomy) as QL’s DIY-challenged father, Pam Grier as her mother and Phylicia Rashad as Common’s mother don’t have much to do, yet work what they have. On balance, "Just Wright" is a funny and delightful entertainment.

My only real quibble with the film is the degree to which the audience has to suspend credulity to accept Common as a star NBA player. Not because of his age because at 38 he can pass for 10 years younger. He was not exactly towering over me when I introduced myself at the premiere party at the Empire Hotel - and I was wearing flats. I'd give him 5'10" at the outside. The producers probably reasoned that height wouldn't carry much weight, sure that audiences would quickly get over it and just enjoy the film. After all, it is not a film about basketball.

“Just Wright” is a perfect date film. Women can have their promise of love and men can have the rush that competitive sports produces in them. Everybody can leave the theater with a smile.

”Just Wright” is rated PG (from some suggestive material and brief language) and is playing nationally.

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