The set-up for Just Wright, opening Friday, is familiar: the sensitive, funny friend who attracts the attention of someone of the opposite sex, seemingly out of her league. But there's a spark - at least until that person meets her better-looking best friend.
When it comes to this kind of romantic comedy, Queen Latifah seems like a natural as the woman who men love to hang with - when they're not in pursuit of a woman they want to have sex with. In dating parlance, it's called "the friend zone," and it's like the penalty box of dating, when your only crime is not being buff and unobtainable.
Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a New Jersey physical therapist and die-hard fan of the play-off-bound New Jersey Nets. (Given that the team a) sucks and b) is leaving the state soon, this seems like a cruel joke by Hollywood on true Nets fans.) She accompanies her gold-digging friend Morgan (Paula Patton) to a game; Leslie loves the game but Morgan is only interested in landing a player as her meal-ticket (as well as her pass to the row reserved for the spouses of the players).
Morgan nearly gets her wish: Leslie meets Nets All-Star guard Scott McKnight (Common) and helps him at a gas station, then introduces him to Morgan. Before long, Morgan is his fiancée, enjoying the celebrity status that goes with being on the arm of a professional athlete.
But when McKnight tears a knee ligament and goes on the disabled list for a long chunk of the season, Morgan loses interest in being his soulmate because it takes too much, well, soul. Even after getting McKnight to hire Leslie to supervise his rehab, Morgan dumps him, leaving him both injured and wallowing in self-pity.
The rest of the story seemingly writes itself, or feels as if it did. You could stop this movie at the one-hour mark and hand out pencils and paper to the audience - and they could outline everything that happens in the next 50 minutes.
Which would be fine because, with a really proficient romantic-comedy, it's about the jokes and the clever twists, not the formula plot. But director Saana Hamri tends to dwell on the cliché moments - like the montage of a just-satisfied Latifah, after a romp with Common, flouncing in her sheets, essentially high-fiving herself for getting him to look at her like that.
But scenes like that and the various basketball montages only pad the film, which might have been a tighter, wittier piece if Hamri and writer Michael Elliot had scrubbed some of their soapier impulses.
The romantic scenes - between Common and Patton and Common and Latifah - have the look and sound of an old Barry White video or an early Teddy Pendergrass album. But Hamri can't infuse those moments with much erotic tension, if only because Patton is so obviously a head case. How can Latifah respect and want a man who would be fooled by Patton's act?
So pace is a problem, and so is padding - and, of course, the lack of truly witty dialogue. Common has been directed to gaze at both women as though he'd just been pole-axed - or like his sixth shot of tequila just hit him like a tidal wave, but he's still trying to maintain a semblance of sobriety.
Latifah and Common have chemistry together, but it's not as interesting as the chemistry Latifah has with Phylicia Rashad, as McKnight's watchful mother. Both women have attitude to spare and bust it out for their brief, funny encounters.
Just Wright is one of those could-have-been-worse movies. But it also could have been much, much better.
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