THE BLOG

Black or White: Gray

02/03/2015 04:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

The new star vehicle for Kevin Costner "Black or White" is, of course, both good and bad. The acting is generally good. The plotting and writing, generally not so much.

The film begins in a blur. This is a function of soft camera shot to ease us into the tragedy from which the film springs. But that's the last time the viewer is left with any ambiguity. We are quickly brought up to narrative speed and our viewpoint shaped by underlined character sketches and plot devices.

Eliot Anderson (Costner), a well to do lawyer, has just lost his wife Carol to a car accident. He drinks. A lot. Carol and Eliot have been raising their adorable, flawless bi-racial grandchild Eloise (Jillian Estell). Eliot needs to quickly get up to speed on his parenting skills. This means learning the mysteries of hair, tooth brushing and school drop offs. He hires tutor Duvan Araga (Mpho Koaho) whose academic brilliance provides comic relief. So it goes in middlebrow romantic comedies.

Dramatic tension is provided by the custody challenge by the African American side of Eloise family. Costner's daughter died in childbirth trying to conceal the ignominy of an out of wedlock child by an irresponsible young Black father who indeed abandons his family. Reggie (Andre Holland), Eloise' father and Costner's nemesis, drifts in and out of the story providing an inept sparring partner for Costner's drunken verbal tirades, a crack cocaine addiction symmetric to Costner's alcohol addiction and a stereotype of negligent, absentee Black fathers everywhere.

But the real alternate magnetic pole of the story is Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) Eloise paternal side grandparent. Spencer is charming, funny and knowing as a successful-against-all-odds one woman conglomerate, running half a dozen small businesses from her garage. This loving, successful matriarch is the real opposition for Costner. She (Her stereotype) offers the warmth, culture and familial balance to Costner's stiff, well-healed white alcoholism.

Anthony Mackie, the Jeffers family's other notable success and spearhead of the custody battle, delivers a crisp rendition of brilliant Black lawyer. But the film makers should have listened to their own characterization, as Mackie's stentorian dressing down of Reggie as a pathetic cliché of African American father failure measures the lack of depth they themselves too often provide. Nor do supporting cast add interest, functioning more as supernumeraries than supernovas.

As a star vehicle for Costner, we see him in virtually every frame, underlining his emotions, doubling down on the anger and re-writing the Guiness Record Book for cinematic bottle draining. So it is Spencer, even carrying the weight of caricature, who holds the movie together. The scenes with her scintillate, as she runs her family and the film like a talented point guard making everyone around her better than they have any right to appear.

She almost rescues the film from the realm of Judge Judy meets Doctor Phil. But writer/director Mike Binder (Reign On Me, The Upside of Anger - another Costner collaboration) was determined to drive this vehicle over the top and into the soft predictable familiarity of easy resolution. If you didn't see this coming, you really need to watch more television. Binder has provided us with a watchable, but uneven soap opera that pulls punches and substitutes characters who are just misunderstood for real people who live and die under the siege of a much more brutal reality.