Family, and film, rides on Eva's shoulders

Movie Review

February 07, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The title doesn't speak for the audience: Viewers want all they can get of Eva in Deliver Us From Eva. This alternately amusing and irritating romantic comedy centers on Eva Dandridge (Gabrielle Union), the eldest of four sisters whose parents died in a car crash. She's acted as both mother and father to her siblings since they were teen-agers - and she continues to do so even after two of them marry and the third settles into a long-term relationship.

Eva lays down edicts on everything from the right time to have babies to the perils of cohabitation, and thinks nothing of entering her sisters' homes - and bedrooms - without invitation. Her presence so upsets her sisters' men that they offer to pay a romantic "player" named Ray (James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J) $5,000 to court her and get her off their backs.

What's fresh about Deliver Us From Eva is that this apparent anti-heroine is far more than a harridan. She's the star of the family and the life of the movie - a credit to Union, writer-director Gary Hardwick and co-writers Barbara Brauner and James Mattson.

Of course, this Type A-plus personality demands the best of her sisters and peak performance from herself, her co-workers, even her pastor. But Eva brings zest to everything she does, whether she's riding a horse, singing in the choir or practicing her putdown artistry both in her job as a public-health inspector and her domestic role as family gatekeeper and lawgiver. It makes sense that Ray decides to accept the guys' offer only after he sees Eva in action berating a Los Angeles restaurateur.

Before you can say The Taming of the Shrew, Ray - a sly, casual seducer - has planted seeds of attraction and started to smooth Eva's serrated edges. But Deliver Us From Eva is really a tale of two Kates. Eva resembles both Shakespeare's shrew and Kate Hepburn's glittering persona from The Philadelphia Story: the woman who can't settle for imperfection in any man (including her own father).

And Eva is too big a character for this movie's rudimentary story. She knows that her protective instincts long ago went into overdrive; she even acknowledges she gave more to her sisters than they can possibly pay back. You root for her to be happy. But you cringe when this film certifies her happiness when she lets her hair down with the rest of the gals in the beauty shop and speaks of her and Ray "burning a hole in the floor."

The Philadelphia Story was designed to reconnect the supposedly haughty Hepburn with her audience by cutting her down to size. But Hepburn's obsession with flawlessness became part of a smooth satiric dialogue about love and charity, snobbery and reverse-snobbery. Much of the time, Deliver Us From Eva punishes its heroine for her aspirations. The story never travels far enough from its basic premise. It isn't about men from Mars, women from Venus and "the sister-in-law from hell"; it's about three fellows from a men-are-slobs TV commercial trying to drag Eva and her sisters down to their version of planet Earth.

The movie starts with an elegant dance number set to "You're All I Need to Get By," but sets its comic terms when the guys grumble about giving up sports on TV so the sisters' book club can discuss Toni Morrison's Beloved and watch a video of the movie.

Eva soars beyond this framework. And to be fair, Ray and the filmmakers try to follow her trajectory. But the movie wastes too much time putting an exuberant cast through predictable grousing and even more predictable jubilation after Eva and Ray get it on. The picture gets dangerously close to saying all a gnarly woman needs is a good, uh, bedmate.

LL Cool J has vast reservoirs of charm. But the screenwriters strain to make his rambling character heroic: a scene where he shows up Eva's arrogant ex-lover exists solely for that purpose. When Ray, to his surprise, falls for Eva, he turns into such a model lover that the sisters demand that their men live up to him.

But for the movie to turn into something special, that twist should come earlier and lead somewhere. Instead, it lands the characters in a shambles of farce, melodrama and forced chivalry. For all its promise and accomplishment, the screenplay, like Eva, needs a knight on a white horse.

Deliver Us From Eva

Starring Gabrielle Union, James Todd Smith

Directed by Gary Hardwick

Rated R

Released by Focus Features

Time 107 minutes

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