MOVIE REVIEW: The Best Man Holiday



Constituting mostly complete reworks or weak token connections (here's a sample list), most long-awaited Hollywood sequels are mere shadows of their originals.  Either too much time has passed, too many changes have been made, or too many of the cast of characters we fell in love are not around for the second go-around.  Very few of the best divided sequels are natural extensions of their original stories of what made them worthy of a sequel to begin with, no matter how many years its been.  For this critic, the most perfect example of long-distance sequel work is the trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and this past summer's Before Midnight  starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, which are each a lengthy nine years apart from each but don't feel like time machines or time capsules.  This Thanksgiving holiday season treats us to one that nails what a sequel should be and it comes from an unexpected, but beloved source.

1999's The Best Man is a fun and highly enjoyable romantic comedy that predates everyone having a cell phone and the wave of 21st century Tyler Perry caricature works that changed the brand of African-American ensembles.  If you have never seen it or haven't seen it in a while, revisit it and see a class of romantic comedy that beats the junk being put out on a semi-regular basis today.  Better than just some "black movie," writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's work presents us with an approachable and noteworthy example what a circle of intelligent and successful young African-Americans can be, without the stereotypes and labels of thugs, gangs, violence, pimps, and hos.  Excellent steady performers like Taye Diggs, future Oscar nominee Terrance Howard, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Monica Calhoun, Sanaa Lathan, and Harold Perrineau cut their teeth together to show what they were capable of when given intelligent and sensible material.  The result was an immensely enjoyable comedy that plays as one of the better wedding movies you'll ever see, full of great laughs and plenty of twists and turns.

It's been 14 years since Cameo's "Candy" was the song pacing the Electric Slide end credits sunset treated to the characters of The Best Man.  With the return of Malcolm D. Lee and every single primary cast member, The Best Man Holiday is a rousing comeback piece that is as unexpected as its return itself.  Don't believe the Robin Thicke-flavored, party-vibe trailer that is making the rounds.  This is not an unoriginal ploy at repeating 14-year-old jokes to earn paychecks.  This is a keen demonstration to the maturation process of both content and character that a proper sequel can achieve.  

The Best Man Holiday  pulls out many surprises, not the least of which is a heartfelt dramatic core that will warm your spirit and leave a lasting impression of friendship and fellowship.  While it has its flaws and cheesy elements,The Best Man Holiday is one of the most flat-out entertaining and satisfying romantic comedy experiences to come to movies in years.

In a snappy opening credits montage of photos, magazine articles, and little video snippets, we are caught up quickly from where they were in their mid-to-late 20's back in 1999 to the successful adults knocking on the door to 40.  Our lead protagonist, author Harper Stewart (Diggs) married Robyn (Lathan) and achieved best-selling success from his tawdry, thinly-veiled friendship judgment of a novel from the first film, but is now out of work and in a financial slump trying to follow that hit up while the couple expects their first child.  He doesn't still pine like he used to for the workaholic Jordan (Long), who has climbed the corporate ladder to larger TV networks and has a hot new (*gasp*) white suitor (Eddie Cibrian), but the past connection is still there, much to Robyn's dismay.

The bride and groom from the first wedding, pro football running back Lance Sullivan (Chestnut) and his wife Mia have been blessed with four children and unparalleled inspirational success as an all-time great player and pillar of the community approaching retirement.  The memorable and incorrigible Quentin Spivey (Howard) has become a successful entrepreneur of brand management connecting with all sorts of influential celebrities and world figures.  Diving deeper, Julian Murch (Perrineau) married Candace (Regina Hall), the bachelor party stripper, became the father of two girls, and has successfully started a private school for at-risk urban children that is struggling to keep its funding.  His outlandish ex, Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) has used her conniving ways to become a multi-time reality TV "housewife" star and rides that fame's coattails to celebrity and gossip status.

At the urgent invitation of Mia Sullivan, the former college friends are reunited for a Christmas holiday together under one roof.  Weaved around holiday festivities and a Christmas day football game where Lance can break the career rushing record, this crew reconnects and falls into their old act until the weight becomes too heavy and conflicts arise.  Old secrets come out and churn up new secrets.  Old flames and exes cross paths and interfere with the new lives people have made for themselves.

The years have matured all of these enjoyable characters in The Best Man Holiday  and its not all about who's hooking up with who anymore.  The sex farce-level comedy is still there with the renewed and intertwined relationships, but these characters are successful adults now and the real challenges placed before them reflect that gained wisdom.  At the same time, you have to remember that Lee and these actors and actresses have aged and matured just like these characters.  Lee isn't making Roll Bounce  or Undercover Brother here and its been a long time since most of these performers, particularly Diggs, Lathan, Long, Chestnut, and Howard, have been comedic or dramatic leads.  All have avoided landing in some Tyler Perry ensemble over the past decade and their careers show their discerning taste for genuine talent and legitimate roles like these.

That grown maturity opens the doors to this film's surprising levels of heart and drama.  I, for one, did not see this side of these characters and performances coming at all.  I figured as many did that we were getting another party.  I'm serious when I say pack some tissues.  The film has that level of touch.  To avoid spoilers, some of the developments hit me like a ton of bricks and it may just do the same to you.  It reaches a little far in the end with a pushed football game and a zany baby delivery, but those hints of cheese do not devalue the overall effect one bit.

Even with the amplified level of tangible drama between friends and family, The Best Man Holiday is an extremely rewarding experience.  It's an outstanding choice for couples and holiday lovers.  You will wonder why it has taken this long to bring these folks back together.  You might also wonder why more stellar African-American ensembles like this aren't made more often.

The cast slides back into their characters with ease and they are an absolute pleasure to watch.  The appeal and charm are on full blast.  After far too many serious roles for years, Terrance Howard returns to comedy and damn near steals the show, but everyone gets their standout moments in what would be an overcrowded ensemble in different hands.  When looked upon as the sum of its excellent parts, this movie hits so many high points that it's a fitting progression and seasoned improvement from the original, The Best Man Holiday  offers its own promise of a potential second sequel and this critic hopes it's less that 14 years until their next get-together.  On a personal note of my own nostalgia, it's an absolute pleasure to make this review my 400th published blog post.

LESSON #1: "THE REASON FOR THE SEASON"-- The predominant core of our tight-knit friend group in The Best Man Holiday are strong faith-supported people who know and reflect that the real "reason for the season" is serving Him, something that becomes central to this film's dramatic elements.  While they each have their own personal hurdles and needs for the holidays, they remind themselves and each other that all they do is a reflection on and service to their Creator.  Much selfishness gets pushed aside.

LESSON #2: BEING ABLE TO RELY ON YOUR FRIENDS FOR HELP AND SUPPORT WHEN NECESSARY-- To match the tough economic times that have evolved since we last saw these successful families and individuals, there are low points where friends in need have to put personal pride aside, admit the need for charity (financial or otherwise), and accept help from their friends.  After all, if you can't rely on those closest to you for support and trust, life will be much harder and solitary.  When a real time of need and support comes, you will value their presence.

LESSON #3: FORGIVING PAST SECRETS AND MISTAKES AND MATURING INTO ADULTHOOD-- Those that have seen the first film know what problematic secrets and past mistakes led to cracks in trust and friendship.  The decade and change has dulled some of their detrimental pain for these characters, but it doesn't help when new secrets and mistakes arrive.  When enough time and healing have past or when parties are willing to forgive, the opportunities will present themselves to heal those wounds together and come out stronger.  That's what adults do.  Grudges are heavier in adulthood and letting go of them is part of maturing.