The Next Best Thing
Screenplay : Thomas Ropelewski
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Rupert Everett (Robert Whittaker), Madonna (Abbie Reynolds), Benjamin Bratt (Ben), Michael Vartan (Kevin), Josef Sommer (Richard Whittaker), Lynn Redgrave (Helen Whittaker), Illeana Douglas (Elizabeth), Neil Patrick Harris (David), Malcolm Stumpf (Sam)
Is it possible for there to be a film starring Madonna that does not include at least one of her songs during the movie? Is there something in her contract that demands that she must be included in the film both visually and aurally?
This is not to say that there is something bad about Madonna's music. But, hearing her singing on the soundtrack constantly reminds us that we're not watching a character on-screen, but rather, we are watching Madonna playing a character on-screen. This might not be as troubling if Madonna were a better actress, but her latest turn in John Schlesinger's progressive dramedy "The Next Best Thing" cements for certain what has been suspected for a long time: she is a bad actress, Golden Globe or not. Her leaden performance weighs down an already heavy-handed film in a way that causes it to sink straight to the bottom.
Like "The Object of My Affection" (1998) two years ago, "The Next Best Thing" is an unsubtle cinematic plea for the viability of the alternative family. However, interestingly enough, no one in Hollywood seems capable of imagining an alternative family outside of a straight white woman and a gay white man. It seems that "alternative" is becoming just as stubbornly unflinching in its construction as "traditional."
Madonna stars as Abbie, a single woman in her late 30s who has just been dumped by her latest shallow boyfriend, Kevin (Michael Vartan), and is wallowing in her despair that she will never find Mr. Right and have a family. One night, she and her best friend, Robert (Rupert Everett), who is gay, have a drunken encounter that leads to Abbie becoming pregnant. Abbie and Robert decide to move in together and raise the child themselves as a family. The film then jumps ahead six years, where Abbie and Robert are still living together, happily raising their son, Sam (Malcolm Stumpf).
Of course, this premise has been mined before in "The Object of My Affection," but so far "The Next Best Thing" has a vague hint of potential. That hint doesn't last long, though. Instead of examining what might actually go into the day-to-day life of an alternative family, rather than looking at true emotional issues and the kinds of hard questions that must be raised and answered in any family, screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski ("Look Who's Talking Now") expends the film's energy in concocting a flimsy conflict where Abbie falls in love with a suave New York businessman named Ben (Benjamin Bratt).
This creates a rupture in the progressive familial bliss because Abbie and Ben want to get married and move back to New York, taking Sam with them. Robert feels that he must have some kind of legal right to joint custody, which unfortunately introduces lawyers, judges, and a courtroom into the story. From there, the already wobbly narrative quickly slides into pure mush, right down to the cliche courtroom sequence and all its grandstanding, pseudo-elegant monologues that bring the movie to its disingenuous, unaffecting climax.
Director John Schlesinger, who was known in the late '60s and '70s for such great and moving films as "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971), doesn't seem to know what to make of this project. It starts off as a sitcom-like comedy, then changes gears midway through and becomes a heavy-handed drama that plays like a reduced-calorie version of "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979).
Much of it can be blamed on Ropelewski's script, which creates slots to fill rather than characters. Rupert Everett, whose charm can overcome almost any obstacle, still flounders helplessly as Robert, a role with no real definition. For instance, while most of the film makes him out to be a decent, noble human being, he is still forced into a silly, uncharacteristic sequence where he acts like an utter jerk to Ben for no other reason than to introduce the idea of jealousy into his relationship with Abbie.
Abbie is even less defined than Ben, and Madonna's wooden performance (complete with an inexplicable quasi-British accent that comes and goes) doesn't help matters at all. All we know about her by the end of the film is that she's a good yoga instructor and she doesn't like the idea of growing old. Then there are all kinds of supporting slots to be filled: Neil Patrick Harris fills the slot of the angry HIV-positive gay friend (is there such a thing as a film about homosexuality that doesn't somehow work in something about AIDS?); Lynn Redgrave fills the slot of the dotty, eccentric, but accepting mother; and Josef Sommer gets the thankless role of the staunch, conservative, but ultimately accepting father.
The real problem with "The Next Best Thing," though, is the same problem that plagued "The Object of My Affection": It's so determined to wrap everything up in a neat, happy package that its disingenuousness becomes almost unbearable. While "The Object of My Affection" was content to leave at least a hint of ambiguity about its conclusion, "The Next Best Thing" collapses in on itself and reveals just how unsure it is of its own material by tacking on an epilogue that literally spells out the ending's happiness in big white letters. Those last moments are almost revoltingly saccharine, and rather than affirming the benefits of diversity, they assure us of just how low the film is willing to go to force its point.
©2000 James Kendrick