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Film review

An alternative route to love

A first-time director successfully walks the fine line between romantic comedy and soap opera, managing to bring Something New to the formula.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published February 2, 2006


 
[Focus Features]
Simon Baker and Sanaa Lathan take a circuitous and sometimes uncomfortable path to romance in Something New.

Calling a romantic comedy Something New is an invitation to sarcasm, because everyone generally falls in love the same way onscreen. Director Sanaa Hamri doesn't entirely avoid the sameness of movie romance, but her first feature film contains enough unique qualities to almost live up to its title.

Yes, this is an interracial coupling we're hoping will happen, but Something New isn't like last year's Guess Who, in which white and black characters treat each other like alien life forms. The two cultures don't clash here; they careen off each other in ways that seem naturally uncomfortable. Neither lover wades too deep into the other's background, and they don't lose their ethnic identities. You get the feeling that this is exactly how it goes for mixed-race couples in best case scenarios.

At first, Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) looks like one of those impossibly dateless, beautiful women the movies always present. Kriss Turner's screenplay sets up Kenya as a workaholic accounting firm manager who doesn't take time for romance. Then there's the sociological factoid that one of her girlfriends drops at lunch: 42.4 percent of African-American women never marry, making Kenya's situation seem beyond her control, to some extent.

Like her girlfriends, Kenya seeks her "IBM," ideal black male. Maybe he'll be the blind date she meets at Starbucks in Magic Johnson's Los Angeles shopping district geared to black consumers. No chance, since Brian Kelly (Simon Baker) is white. Handsome and charming, but white. Kenya quickly, politely ducks out of the date, but in the serendipitous tradition of romantic comedies, they'll meet again.

Brian is an easygoing landscape architect who loves digging in dirt and drives a macho Jeep with his dog in the passenger's seat. In short, he's everything Kenya isn't. That makes them perfect for each other. Brian doesn't mind the race difference; he loves women, period. It's Kenya who must deal with her reluctance and the stares and comments from family and friends when she begins dating Brian.

Something New doesn't dwell on the disapproval such a pairing might bring but remains honest about it. Her friend Walter (Mike Epps) and brother Nelson (Donald Faison) make it clear to Brian that they won't be happy if Kenya gets hurt. They make fun of Brian's whiteness at a barbecue, segregating him from the group, but it's nothing nasty or threatening. Kenya's parents (Alfre Woodard, Earl Billings) object in the loving, denying way Sidney Poitier's did in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Her girlfriends simply say if it feels good, do it.

Eventually, the pressure becomes too much for Kenya to bear, just when a possible IBM named Mark Harper (Blair Underwood) comes into her life. Something New shifts from admirably understated comedy to restrained soap opera, a tough balance for a first-time filmmaker. As always, we can predict what will happen, but Hamri presents a fairly fresh path getting there.

I like the way Something New presents facets of African-American life seldom seen in mainstream movies, such as the formality and brief funkiness of a debutante cotillion, the affluent sophistication making such events important. I like Hamri's approach to material that might be offensive from a solidly black or white perspective. It all makes the foundational sameness of the story easier to take. The basic story isn't new, but telling it this way is really something.

- Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com

Something New

Grade: B

Director: Sanaa Hamri

Cast: Sanaa Lathan, Simon Baker, Donald Faison, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Mike Epps, Blair Underwood, Alfre Woodard, Earl Billings, Matt Malloy

Screenplay: Kriss Turner

Rating: PG-13; sexual humor, brief profanity

Running time: 100 min.

[Last modified February 1, 2006, 09:05:07]


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