Directed by: Sanaa Hamri
Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Golden Brooks, Mike Epps, Alfre Woodard
Something New really isn't, at least insofar as the basics of the romantic-comedy formula are concerned.
The film definitely plays by the conventions of its genre. Uptight businesswoman Kenya (Sanaa Lathan, Alien Vs. Predator) and landscape architect Brian (Simon Baker, Land of the Dead) "meet cute" on a disastrous blind date. Circumstances force them into contact a second time and she succumbs to hiring him to redesign the overgrown backyard at her new house. Naturally, they end up in love, but there are problems, so they break up, only to finally ... well, you get the idea. You've certainly seen it often enough.
Of course, what sets this apart is the interracial aspect. That's not all that novel, but the way it's handled is at least an interesting attempt at something new -- and Something New sometimes succeeds as genuinely new, while at other times it offers a fresh spin on its conventions. And it's always pretty agreeable.
Eschewing the preachy speechifying of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? as well as the moronic slapstick of its witless remake, Guess Who?, Something New offers a new slant on interracial romance. And it's an interesting one, since it's grounded in the racism of its black characters as concerns the idea of Kenya's relationship with this white guy.
Moreover, Something New is set up to make the viewer want Kenya to end up with Brian. That's partly due to the romantic-comedy formula. After all, who wants to invest two-thirds of his or her time in a story like this only to have the heroine end up with somebody else? That's probably more daring than it seems on the surface -- and even more so coming from a black woman director and a black woman writer
The filmmakers are apt to run into resistance on a number of fronts, since Something New is set in the often-overlooked world of upper-middle-class blacks. Most attempts at dealing with this setting -- Brown Sugar and Deliver Us From Eva are recent examples -- feel they have to hedge their bets, keeping one foot in the movies' idea of "the 'hood." And still these films sink from view without a trace.
The cleverness of much of Kriss Turner's screenplay is quickly apparent in Kenya's blind date with Brian, who unexpectedly turns out to be white. Just in case Brian doesn't notice that Kenya's black, she lays it on with a trowel, making comments to total (black) strangers ("You're wearin' those dreads, girl!") to make sure Brian realizes the racial gap between them. In Kenya's mind, the perfect man has to be black. As noted, this first "date" doesn't work out, but the relationship comes about anyway through circumstances. Problems arise in part thanks to Kenya's family and friends, but just as much owing to her own views.
The film is smart enough also to address the economic gap between the two principals, which is considerable; there's a class barrier as well as a racial one. The irony is that for once it's the black woman who's on the up side of this division. That said, there are also some generalizations that weaken the film in this area.
Much is made of the "black tax" -- the idea that blacks have to work harder to receive the same accolades and rewards as their white peers -- but the film strangely ignores the existence of the same problem that Kenya would face as a woman of any race. The film is so narrowly focused on the black-white issue that it never occurs to Kenya that the resistance she faces when confronted with a client might be as much, or even more, grounded in her sex. n.
The film isn't perfect in other ways, either. For every really snappy line -- Suzette (Golden Brooks, Beauty Shop), for instance, complaining, "I could've been at home pleasuring myself" (go see When a Stranger Calls and you'll truly understand her regret) -- there are some painful ones such as Brian saying, "I take hard earth and make it bloom." Similarly, there are times when Sanaa Hamri's direction gets too full of itself. An early scene of Kenya and her girlfriends talking in a restaurant appears to have been shot with what can best be called a motion-sickness-cam.
Still, Something New is a warm and likable film with something on its mind, and it's well worth your time even when it misses the mark. Rated PG-13 for sexual references.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke