On screen, Madonna is not `The Next Best Thing'

Movie reviews

March 03, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

If "The Next Best Thing" does anything, it confirms a few points we already knew. Madonna can't act. Rupert Everett can. And there's something very wrong with a system in which a director of John Schlesinger's caliber finds himself slumming in the gutters of mass popular culture.

Indeed it's difficult to detect the signature of the man who made "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" in this piece of lifeless fluff, but maybe that's all to the good. The best thing for him to do at this point is back slowly to the door and slip out quietly in pursuit of a project worthier of his talents.

In "The Next Best Thing" Madonna plays Abbie, a yoga teacher in Los Angeles who has just been dumped by the latest in a string of callow fellows. She runs for comfort to the arms of her best friend, a gay landscape gardener named Robert (Everett), and the next thing you know we're at a funeral of a man we've never met. Cut to a conversation back at the pool house where Robert lives in cabin-boy splendor, then cut again to Abbie and Robert partying hard during the Fourth of July weekend. A drunken tryst ensues, Abbie gets pregnant and the two decide to raise the child together, not as husband and wife, but as mother and father and, more important, best friends. But that friendship is challenged when Abbie meets a man who looks like husband material.

Not a bad premise for a turn-of-the-century movie, and "The Next Best Thing" is filled with lots of comforting admonitions about acceptance, flexibility and open-mindedness, but it's content to skate along the surface of its core concerns like a water bug skimming one of Robert's perfectly tended lily ponds.

This superficiality isn't helped by a cold, self-regarding performance from Madonna, whose faux British accent came from either the Kathleen Turner School of Indeterminate Dialects or the Belgravia section of Detroit. Of Madonna's considerable talents, making the camera love her isn't one: The screen seems to go dead every time she's on it.

Everett, on the other hand, gives his all in a movie that clearly doesn't deserve him. His deft, slightly sneering touch with light comedy keeps the otherwise leaden proceedings afloat; even the longueurs of a protracted custody trial are sharpened by his unexpectedly ferocious anger as a man whose commitment to a child is questioned because of his sexuality.

"The Next Best Thing" has a lush look (Abbie and Robert are apparently the best paid yoga teacher and gardener on the planet) and hits all the narrative "beats" that make for a successful mainstream no-brainer. But there's something bothersome about its resolution, in which Abbie says to Robert, "We really messed up, didn't we?" The implicit answer is yes, even though throughout the movie Abbie is selfish, narcissistic, manipulative and dishonest whereas Robert only acts with the most honorable of intentions.

Somehow she's let off the hook in a movie that's more concerned with making a political point than in exploring and challenging anything as boring as personal ethics. Maybe if Abbie -- or the filmmakers -- had actually read the texts that yoga is based on, "The Next Best Thing" would have been a different movie. As it is, we're left wondering: The next best thing to what?

`Next Best Thing'

Starring Madonna, Rupert Everett

Directed by John Schlesinger

Rated PG-13

Running time 110 minutes

Released by Paramount Pictures

Sun score * 1/2

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