From delightful performances to dazzling smiles, everything about 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' is in great form.

A GOOD 'GROOVE'

August 14, 1998|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

"How Stella Got Her Groove Back," a tropical romance based on the novel, Stella gets her groove back relatively early in the game. Which is all to the good, since that means filmgoers wind up getting a major groove on for the rest of this funny, sensuous and thoroughly delicious picture.

Angela Bassett plays Stella Payne, a divorced 40-year-old financial consultant with an 11-year-old son. Stella is comfortable: She has feathered a sumptuous nest in a gorgeous San Francisco neighborhood, her son is a terrific kid, and she maintains a close, if sometimes fractious, relationship with her two sisters, Angela (Suzzanne Douglas) and Vanessa (Regina King).

But one glance at Stella's fierce grimace while she jogs will tell you: The girl is locked down inside. It's been a while since her last affair, and she's in deep need of some release. On a spur-of-the-moment whim, Stella calls her best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) in New York, and the two jet down to Jamaica for a week of sun, sea and sister-girl chatter.

Stella gets all of that and more when she meets the handsome Winston (Taye Diggs), a quiet, sensitive medical student 20 years her junior. Stella and Winston enjoy a brief romantic liaison, but whether it turns into true love depends on Stella not just getting her groove back, but trusting it as a source of self-knowledge and inner strength.

But don't let phrases like "self-knowledge" and "inner strength" fool you: "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" isn't a ponderous meditation on personal growth. Rather, those themes are given the lightest of touches by Stella's actions, whether she's dancing a sinewy duet with Winston or relaxing into his arms. Put bluntly, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is all about bodies. It's a romance between two great smiles, two well-matched bone structures and two dazzling physiques.

In other words, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is a classic of TTC that staple of summer movies: eye candy at its sticky-sweetest, from the marvelous-looking lead players to the lush locales of Jamaica and the Bay Area to Stella's fabulous designer wardrobe (Calvin Klein, darling). Add a mellow soundtrack combining the sounds of Boyz II Men, M'Shell Ndegeocello and Mary J. Blige, and you've got the perfect Saturday night entertainment. It washes away memories of the leaden "Six Days, Seven Nights" and too-cute "Hope Floats" in a wave of sexy sensuality and visual sophistication (credit here goes to director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who has brought Terry McMillan's novel to the screen with unobtrusive ease).

Although "Stella" gets bonus points for the all-too-rare love scenes between two mature black adults (more, please), if there was ever a candidate for crossover, this is it. Romantics everywhere, of all races, religions and cultures, are sure to succumb to its delectable pleasures. After all, when was the last time love and beauty obeyed such petty limitations?

Everybody in "Stella" looks so good, it's easy to overlook how terrific the performances are. It's nice to see Bassett -- who so often plays women of grim self-control -- loosen up a little bit, and she proves to be a worthy and self-assured foil for the devastatingly funny Goldberg, who has never been in better form. King -- best known as the mouthy football wife of Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Jerry Maguire" -- is another source of inspired comic relief as Stella's very down sister, a paramedic who would rather jaw on her cell phone than help a stretcher into her ambulance.

But the most delightful surprise here is Taye Diggs, who makes his feature debut in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," fresh from appearing in the off-Broadway hit "Rent." It would be easy to get one look at Diggs' smile and stop right there, enjoying the light he gives off. But look more deeply into his performance and you can see that he manages to bring surprising depth and character to a man who easily could have been played as a mere boy toy.

Overheard during the movie's climactic shower scene: "Lord, to be the soap." "There oughtta be a law." And "Did they cut the air off in here?"

Indeed, Stella getting her groove back involves a lot of steam, so filmgoers should be prepared to indulge their most libidinal fantasies.

Which brings us to another subtle achievement of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," which in its light, sometimes silly, always easygoing way, is a testament to two essential things in life: the power of the erotic and the fact that love often comes in unexpected packages. "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" may be eye candy, but there's sweet wisdom at its center.

'How Stella Got Her Groove Back'

Starring Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg, Taye Diggs

Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (language and some sexuality)

Running time 121 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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