Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nothing Terribly New Or Edgy With Something New

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of character, Tolerant concept
The Bad: A lot of the characterization is "types," Fairly stagnant plot
The Basics: In a decidedly average romantic film, a black woman dates a white man for the first time in her life and discovers -like the audience- it's no big deal.

Every now and then with the massive number of movies I watch, I come across one that is simply one that has worn me down. I watched a number of films on DVD where before the film started, there was a preview for Something New. The first time I saw the trailer for Something New, my two thoughts were: 1. They just showed the entire movie in the preview and 2. Wow, it's Ethnic Mismatch Comedy #156 . . .again. My immediate thought was that Something New was just the opposite and I had no impetus to see it. I finally knew I would be sitting down to watch it when, several DVDs by the same company later, I found myself slightly disappointed when the movie previews did NOT include a preview for Something New.

So, I picked it up and watched it.

Kenya McQueen, a lawyer on the fast track to making partner, has moved into a new house and is generally happy, though single. Her three friends are in various stages of relationships, yet are constantly encouraging her to meet a guy and become happier as a part of a pair. Enter Brian Kelly, white man, landscape architect who begins working for Kenya after she is impressed by some of his other work and she denied him a blind date upon discovering the color of his skin. Over several weeks, Kenya and Brian begin a relationship, which goes sour when perceptions of their relationship tear them apart and make them think about the nature of love.

Okay, this is one of those razor decision reviews of mine and let's start right off the bat with the negative. This is a dumb movie in way too many ways. Something New is nothing new, save that the romance involves a black woman and a white man. We never see Kenya in a (perceived) sexually dominant position, the plot never surprises, and her resistance to Brian initially feels forced given her obvious intelligence (more on that in a moment). But every opportunity for this film to actually be edgy is compromised by an attempt to make the film marketable. So, while ethnic issues are discussed, they are never taken to an extreme that pushes the envelope. Kenya's friends come around with ease, none of them is so vehemently against Kenya dating a white man that they utter racial slurs or ostracize her. That puts the edginess of Something New well below other romantic comedies that actually try something new, like Chasing Amy (reviewed here!) and The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love (reviewed here!).

But for a straightforward interethnic relationship story, Something New goes the utterly safe route from the casting on. Kenya is black, Brian is white, but Kenya is not all that black and Brian is not all that white. Brian is a laborer who works outside, his skin is tanned, mitigating his whiteness some. Kenya is a light skinned black woman, played expertly by Sanaa Lathan. Lathan cannot be criticized for her skin color, but director Sanaa Hamri takes the easy out with casting Lathan instead of making the contrast obvious and stronger. Moreover, as far as an interethnic romance goes, Kenya's position at work and in society makes her both a realistically safe woman and an utterly unrealistic one as well. To put it simply, a professional woman with the power, looks and position of Kenya has a slew of options. That she has stumbled through life unattached while having the desire to be coupled is terribly unrealistic, especially in a city the size of Los Angeles.

My point here is that writer Kriss Turner and director Sanaa Hamri are not edgy enough with the casting, the story is somewhat forced and the issues that most divide the protagonists are economic as opposed to ethnic. And as far as the prejudices in Something New, there's something intangibly disappointing with the way they are presented in this movie. Kenya's parents, wealthy doctors, are educated, articulate and strong. Why they need convincing by Kenya to "come around" on her dating a white guy seems beneath their station and intelligence. I suppose in the U.S., the mainstream media and culture seldom portrays black culture as blindly prejudice against whites - whereas the opposite is not true - usually giving a bevy of reasons for black characters to distrust white ones, such that when it is seen as in Something New, it feels bothersome. Again, especially as a class issue in this case.

So, why am I recommending this film?

Something New may be fairly typical romantic comedy fare - one of the people I watched the movie with was bugged by the director's choice to not let the camera rest during one of the important conversations -, but the dialogue is good. The characters may be cardboard cutouts that are simply placed in unfamiliar positions - it still bugs me that Kenya's dating Brian is focused on as an ethnic issue when the class difference was more pronounced - but they speak with original voices that are distinct. And while this is no Invisible Man (reviewed here!), it is an important enough film for our times.

In short, Something New is relevant still because it may stimulate discussions, it can raise the level of dialogue about interethnic relations because some of the mindsets portrayed in the film still exist in the United States today. It's one of those films that's worthwhile until the point when cultural attitudes are beyond it, when it will simply be passe. Indeed, watching the film is somewhat a model of preaching to that choir. Those who will appreciate the interethnic love story are those who are already tolerant of the idea, as opposed to those who are rabidly against the notion. And this film will not sway them.

But ultimately what Something New does well is present the object lesson for its own irrelevancy. When Brian and Kenya finally get beyond the flirting and the "issues" involving the potentials of a relationship and get on with having a relationship, director Sanaa Hamri brilliantly directs a scene that illustrates the utter futility of the conflict of interethnic relationships. Hamri beautifully lights a scene with Brian and Kenya such that their skin colors are washed out and equalized at the same shade. Hamri implicitly states that we are all the same, we are all human, by creating a scene where Brian and Kenya are the same skin color. It's brilliant, well executed and despite my earlier objection to the "safe" casting, I loved that scene.

The acting, though, is superlative and that's what raises this average movie out of the den of utter mediocrity. Sanaa Lathan is convincing and brilliant as Kenya, infusing a passion and implicit competence into the character from her first moments on screen. She plays well off costar Simon Baker (Brian) and holds her own easily with everyone else, including Alfre Woodard - who comes into the film late as Kenya's mother. The acting in Something New is solid, beginning to end.

Who will like Something New? Anyone who likes a romance that will pass a Friday night. It's a shockingly safe movie and even after the preview - which DOES show virtually the entire movie - I think I hoped for more. But if you're not into edgy and want to watch something with an interethnic relationship, Something New might well fit the bill.

For other works with Taraji P. Henson, please visit my reviews of:
Peep World
Boston Legal - Season 4
Smokin’ Aces
Four Brothers


For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an alphabetical listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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