‘The Best Man Holiday’ **** (out of 5)
Starring: Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Monica Calhoun, Regina Hall, and Melissa DeSousa
Written and Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
“Ain’t nobody deserve misery. It’s just your turn”- Quentin (Terrence Howard)
A harsh pinch of my arm as the lights dimmed reminded me that I was, indeed, awake. 1999’s “The Best Man”, one of the more underappreciated and well-made films about friendships and relationships I’ve ever seen, got a sequel. More than anything, it intrigues me that a modern-day studio would greenlight this film and designate it for wide release. Perhaps since the popularity of the leads has reasonably increased over the years, they felt comfortable enough. I shouldn’t worry either way about why this exists, and simply be thankful that it does. This is a well-made, humorous, emotional, logical, and sensual film, succeeding on every level. The filmmakers care so much about the characters that we can’t help but care for them as well. If not for a slight misstep towards the end, I’d consider “The Best Man Holiday” to be one of the best films of the year.
In a lesser film, the plot would seem forced and typical- Harper (Taye Diggs), the ‘best man’ from the original, is a struggling novelist now, having found little success since his page-turning debut that spawned the problems in the first film. He and his pregnant chef of a wife (Sanaa Lathan) receive an invite to spend the holidays at the not-so-humble abode of Lance & Mia Sullivan (Morris Chestnut & Monica Calhoun), along with all of the friends we remember from the first film. Harper gets advice from career-driven Jordan (Nia Long), his confidant and former almost lover, in the form of a book suggestion- Lance is retiring from the NFL soon, and his best man Harper should pen the biography of the football legend. Keeping that in mind, along with his financial troubles, Harper begrudgingly accepts the invite. After all, the events of the last film left him and his best friend estranged for years, with only occasional contact- not the ideal close friendship.
The old group does reunite, but it doesn’t always feel so good- the bachelor Quentin (Terrence Howard) has finally found his niche as a ‘brand manager’, capitalizing on others’ dull minds with his sharp wit. Murch (Harold Perrineau) is doing exactly what you might think he’d do- running a school for underprivileged children, married to Candace (Regina Hall), the stripper with a brain who blew his mind in the last film. Shelby, Murch’s former girl, has blown up in a big way, starring on a reality show about single housewives or whatever it is that wealthy, shallow people do for fame. That doesn’t mean she’s happy. Mia? She’s been busy raising four children and doing exactly what Lance predicted of her; being happy and content as a homemaker (or so we’re led to believe).
There is an inevitable tension as this group, 15 years older, tries to manage their emotions around the holiday season. For those not aware of the original, Harper had concealed a secret that he once slept with his best friend’s girl. Once the truth sees daylight, emotions get the best of everyone, and revised understandings must be established in a short time to see the wedding through. Clearly, those involved with the events of the first film still carry the associated feelings with them. Things aren’t quite ‘the same’ as everyone reconnects, and the film does a fine job taking us to the logical next step in the character’s emotional journeys.
This is all standard fare, and if it weren’t for the care given to the script and the love the actors put into their performances, it would be forgettable. I felt, as other critics have, that the film was similar to a ‘reunion’ TV episode- everything here feels familiar and established, evident in the involuntary grin appeared on my face multiple times as a result. A particular scene halfway through the film is an example, as the four main guys serenade the ladies in ‘airband’ style to the tune of New Edition’s classic “Can You Stand the Rain”. At the very least, it harkens back to the best moment of “The Cosby Show” when the Huxtables ‘airband’ Ray Charles. At best, it’s one of the coolest, sweetest moments you’ll ever see in movies. For me, the scene encapsulates the reason for loving these two films- the heart displayed on-screen, coupled with the charisma of the actors, is uncommon and welcome.
The aforementioned misstep comes from the unfortunately perfunctory and inaccurate way Malcolm D. Lee handles the football scenes toward the end. Lance is nearing the all-time rushing record, and attempts to break it in a Christmas Day game. The announcers (Greg Gumbel and Eddie George of all people) reference his ascension toward that goal right after Lance catches a pass out of the backfield. Call me crazy, but those aren’t rushing yards. Also, the film handles a pivotal character arc mostly with grace and dignity, but the surrounding football events don’t match up well, creating an awkward, corny moment in a film devoid of them in all other scenes. I won’t give away the arc I’m referencing; suffice to say it’s another thing the film generally handles well.
There is a clear hint that a third film will follow. If Malcolm D. Lee treats that material with the same respect and love as he has with the first two films, it will be a welcome treat. After all, these are wonderfully written characters. They aren’t swinging magical hammers, shooting flaming arrows, traveling back in time, or anything of the like that’s catching the theater by storm lately, but they offer a welcome, adult respite. I only wish more films had the gall to give us funny, complicated, sexy, cool, and flawed characters like these.
*Note- “The Best Man Holiday” took in over $30 million at the box office, finishing second to “Thor: The Dark World”. $30 MILLION. That’s fantastic. There’s hope for audiences yet.