Directed by: Sanaa Hamri (Something New)
Starring: Queen Latifah, Common, Paula Patton, James Pickens Jr., Phylicia Rashad, Pam Grier
I tussled with myself a bit about whether or not to give Sanaa Hamri’s Just Wright a solid four stars. Ms. Hamri’s film won. Why? First of all, I had a better time watching Just Wright than anything else I saw this weekend—and if that doesn’t count for something, I don’t know what does. Second, it restored my faith in the possibility of enjoying a romantic comedy—something I was beginning to seriously doubt. Is this a formula picture? Sure it is. Does anything happen that you don’t already know when you walk into the theater? No, not really. But this is a good formula movie and it goes down its structural checklist with a sense of élan, a variation or two and a freshness in terms of the characters.
It helps immensely that Queen Latifah is the star of the film. She lights up the screen with enough presence for two personalities. She exudes warmth, intelligence, friendliness and a degree of common sense. It’s impossible not to like her. Unfortunately, it’s not always—or even often—impossible to dislike the movies she has been in. Titles like The Cookout (2004), Taxi (2004), The Perfect Holiday (2007) and Mad Money (2008) come to mind. However, a lot of the movies she is in would be negligible without her propping them up. She’s certainly the most entertaining feature of Valentine’s Day (2010). Here, we have a movie that is close to being worthy of her. Oh, she may still have to do most of the heavy lifting, but Just Wright offers her a pretty square deal.
Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a well-grounded physical therapist who is more or less contented with her lot in life—if not what you’d call happy. She has a good job, a nice fixer-upper house in New Jersey, parents (TV actor James Pickens Jr. and Pam Grier) who love and support her—and the mixed blessing of a best friend, Morgan (Paula Patton), who has come to live with her. What she doesn’t have, of course, is a relationship, something she is used to as she is the one “they all want to be friends with.” She has fallen into being “just one of the guys.” She dresses like it, she acts like it, and she won’t play helpless. Plus, she is used to guys getting one look at Morgan and losing all interest in her.
This is exactly what happens after Leslie meets NBA star Scott McKnight (Common), who likes her just fine—he’s taken with her forthrightness, her established credits as a knowledgeable fan and her professed fondness for jazz. Of course, everything changes when Morgan comes on the scene and sets out to snare Scott and realize her dream of marrying an NBA player. Leslie dutifully backs out and soon Morgan is engaged to Scott, but things go awry when he has an injury that might render him incapable of ever playing again. Since she’s sure his physical therapist is on the make for Scott, Morgan engages Leslie to work on him—and that might have been fine, except Morgan gets bored and worried that he’s going to be an ex-NBA star and dumps him.
What follows isn’t hard to predict, but it does everything with finesse and charm, turning the proceedings into one of those films that does less what it has to do than what you want it to. Part of why it works is that it likes and respects its characters. These are genuinely nice people—even to some degree, Morgan—and you enjoy spending time with them. Some of the genre clichés have pleasant spins on them, especially the variation on the requisite gloomy penultimate reel. Oh, it’s there—the film follows the formula—but it’s not quite the same old thing. It doesn’t all work. Common has good chemistry with Latifah, but almost none at all with Patton—and it’s not just because we know she is the wrong girl. But enough of it works to make it a worthwhile 90 minutes of pleasurable entertainment. Rated PG for some suggestive material and brief language.