Come On In, the Mainstream’s Fine


The Best Man is an unabashedly mainstream romantic comedy about an upwardly mobile group of twentysomethings who are making choices about love and work that will determine the next 40 years of their lives. Everything about the film is familiar except that the twentysomethings are all African American (no bows to the “crossover audience” here), and that alone breathes a bit of new life into the genre.

On the other hand, this is not a film about race or racism. Race is even less an issue in Malcolm D. Lee’s debut feature than Jewishness is in Woody Allen films. Woody Allen always has a couple of WASPs around to tickle his neuroses. In The Best Man, there are no white people and hence no racism. Nor are there any poor African Americans, and hence, no African American bourgeois guilt. Maybe The Best Man is escapist entertainment plain and simple, or maybe it’s a subtle act of revenge on a century of American movies that painted the world as white, or maybe it’s an accurate depiction of the self-protective mindset of a generation. One thing is sure: although The Best Man was coproduced by the director’s cousin, Spike Lee, he has never directed a film that goes down as easily as this one does.

Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) is a young writer whose soon-to-be-published first novel, Unfinished Business, is favored by Oprah. Like many first-time novelists, Harper has written about what he knows best—himself and his friends. Two of these friends are getting married and the groom has chosen Harper as his best man. The problem is that an advance copy of Unfinished Business has been circulating among the wedding party. Harper’s friends, who have some quibbles about the way they’re portrayed, are also worried that the groom, despite his busy schedule, might get far enough into the book to discover that if fiction mirrors fact, his bride isn’t as perfect as he fantasizes and that he was betrayed by his best man.

Harper’s profession is crucial for the plot but insignificant in terms of the film’s milieu. The Best Man eschews the black bohemian edge of Hav Plenty or Love Jones. And Diggs, despite his wire-rimmed glasses, hardly seems a writerly type. The best man is not only the film’s leading man but also the straight man for most of its comedy. Diggs is a terrific-looking guy, but he’s easily upstaged by some of the quirkier actors who have less screen time but more showy roles. Among the standouts: Morris Chestnut as the groom, a football superstar who can’t square his jealousy and sexual double standard with his religious beliefs; Harold Perrineau as a dreadlocked social worker who’s under the thumb of his nouveau riche girlfriend; and Terrence Howard as the group’s put-down artist who hasn’t a clue what to do with his own life.

Lee manages to juggle several plot lines while fleshing out a half-dozen characters, although the women are mostly clichés. The dialogue is fast, funny, and based in character. Adroitly directed, the film moves briskly once Lee gets past the awkward lovers-quarrel-in-a-bathtub opening. (And where have we seen those rose-petal-covered bodies before?)

One of the problems of the romantic comedy genre is that it’s based on the assumption that 100 movie minutes is all that’s needed to change two imperfectly matched humans into ideal mates for life. Bringing Up Baby‘s Cary Grant probably returned to being a stick in the mud as soon as he married Katharine Hepburn. And I suspect that it won’t be long before The Best Man‘s groom gets into a jealous rage at his new wife. I got a bit teary during the wedding, but I doubt that the marriage will survive the century’s end.

Nightfall is by far the most powerful and mature film by the talented young German director Fred Kelemen. What it’s doing in XENO, BAM’s festival of European underground films, is a mystery, although it shares the sense of abjection that dominates the other entries. Unlike the sex-drugs-and-raves flicks, the ego massages for underground music stars, the music video compilations, and the mixed bag of British and Irish shorts, Nightfall is a serious, inexorably paced vision of adult hell. Like Kelemen’s earlier Fate and Frost, it’s set in a cold northern European city where the displaced poor wander the streets, drink themselves into stupors, sell their bodies for cigarette money, and abuse those they seek to love.

Shot in a combination of film and video, Nightfall has the tarnished patina of old master paintings. It’s also the least mannered and most economical of Kelemen’s films. The actors’ faces are as haunting as the fado guitar music in the expat bars they frequent. Nightfall deserves a theatrical release, or if that’s too much to expect in the current anti-art-film climate, a classier showcase than this one.

Among the other recommended items: A Secret History of European Music Video, a compilation spanning 30 years of both outré and mainstream clips from The Who to the Chemical Brothers; and Slidin’ Bright and Shiny World, a three-part narrative about teenage angst in an Austrian backwater. The first section follows two 14-year-old girls as they wander a shopping mall, chatting up guys and looking for thrills. Directed by Barbara Albert, it’s a painfully observant piece of filmmaking.

A Europeanized version of the annual Underground Film Festival, and programmed by the UFF’s Ed Halter, XENO devotes far too much time to the oeuvre of Netherlands experimental filmmaker Ian Kerkhof, whose wildly swinging camera movement, superimpositions, abrasive sound, and collages of pornography and bloody mayhem retread the worst of ’60s avant-garde filmmaking. Among the Kerkhof films in XENO is Beyond Ultraviolence, a portrait of the Japanese composer Masami Akita (a/k/a Merzbow), in which Kerkhof attempts to imitate the Merzbow style but instead renders it totally incoherent.

— Rave culture also figures prominently in the ResFest, but American devotees seem bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in comparison with their European counterparts. A touring show devoted to digital movie-making, Res mixes screenings and panel discussions (you can also download movies from their Web site The main event is Jesper Jargil’s The Humiliated, a barbed portrait of Dogma guru Lars Von Trier directing his overrated The Idiots (still unreleased in the U.S.). Jargil catches the emperor without his clothes, literally, as Von Trier strips to put his actors more at ease in their sex scenes. The documentary also includes bits of Von Trier’s diary, in which he reveals himself as a megalomaniac and a lech to boot.

Two Res features are devoted to the music scene. Jon Reiss’s lively Better Living Through Circuitry features such digital sound innovators as Moby, D.J. Spooky, and Frankie Bones. Carter Smith and Kevon Ford’s Three Days follows Jane’s Addiction and Cinque Lee on tour. Skimpy on films but with enthusiasm and information to spare, ResFest is a pioneer of indie film’s digital age.