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The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing
reviewed by Greta Christina

The best thing I can say about The Next Best Thing is that it isn't actually vile. It's mildly entertaining -- some of it, anyway, mostly in the first half. It has a few funny moments (although, to be frank, I'm having a hard time remembering any just now). And Rupert and Madonna definitely have that peculiar gay-guy/straight-girl chemistry, that sympathetic, flirtatious, almost-sexual connection. It's probably the most authentic thing in the movie.

But God Almighty, is it ever a mess. For one thing, it can't figure out what kind of movie it is -- a light comedy of sexual errors, or a serious drama about gay parenting and modern families and other matters of great social importance. I know that sounds like an odd complaint coming from me, seeing as how I love movies that break molds and defy categories. But The Next Best Thing simply isn't a good enough movie to pull off that comedy/drama thing. It's a Hollywood fluff piece, right to the center of its shallow little heart, and it doesn't have enough weight -- or, for that matter, enough humor -- to blend and balance lightness and substance, silliness and pain, into one integral picture. Instead, it spends the first half being a cute, pleasant little puff about a gay man and a straight woman who get pregnant together one very drunken night and decide to raise the kid together -- and then it suddenly jumps its tracks, pulls a custody battle out of its hat, and starts doing this serious family-law drama thing. This preachy, phony, overblown, unbelievably tedious family-law drama thing, I might add.

Both the main characters do this weird switcheroo as the movie shifts gears. All of a sudden they're acting like idiots and assholes -- not because it's in keeping with their character, but because if they don't, all their troubles will be resolved and we're stuck with a forty-minute movie. The problem isn't so much that they behave irrationally or badly -- people do behave irrationally and badly, especially around child custody. It's that their particular forms of irrational bad behavior are completely out of character. It doesn't jibe with anything either of them have done up to that point; in fact, it's so grotesquely wrong that I almost wondered if I'd wandered into the wrong movie by mistake and was seeing some sort of demonic-possession horror thing instead. It's ridiculously unrealistic, which doesn't matter much if you're doing light comedy, but does matter if you're doing deep meaningful drama.

And... oh, I could go on and on. The pacing is jagged and jarring, slogging tediously through some stretches, racing through others in a bewildering blur. The happy ending (oops, what a giveaway) is tacked on hastily, as if they were getting near the end of the movie and had forgotten that they had to have one. You don't even get to see the characters work out their problems, which may be the most interesting part of any genuinely interesting drama. Instead, after an hour or so of behaving like assholes, everyone suddenly decides to be nice again, and then there's a series of still photos with captions glibly explaining what solutions they came up with, and then the credits roll. As if deciding to solve your problems were all you needed to actually solve them.

Yes, I know. It has positive gay characters and a positive message about gay people and gay rights. A somewhat vague and generic message ("Gay Parents Have Rights Too," I think it was), but a positive message nonetheless. But I just don't care anymore. I'm sorry, but the time has long since passed when a movie could get away with being a cheap, sloppy, slapped-together piece of crap just because it had nice things to say about gay people.

Copyright 2000 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.


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