Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:46 - Released 3/3/00

Madonna has made wise use of her considerable talent over the years. She wasted no time in becoming an '80s pop star and video icon, but didn't stop there. With a shrewd eye and some careful career choices, she has propelled herself to success in films, all the way to a Golden Globe award in 1997 for Evita. And the fact that she had a kid didn't hurt her any. But if the reigning queen of pop thinks that John Schlesinger's The Next Best Thing is going to garner her the crown of cinema, she may be mistaken. The film is riddled with problems that chip away at its overall success, and though she does adequately with her role, it is her co-star, Rupert Everett, who deserves most of the praise. In terms of acting, the man runs circles around her.

Regardless of any comparison between the two leads, it's hard to get around the fact that the script, by Tom Ropelewski, is weak at best. First, it is almost the identical same story as the 1998 Jennifer Aniston/Paul Rudd vehicle The Object Of My Affection. And while this film has arguably more star power, its title is unfortunately appropriate: Object did it better on most counts. Ropelewski's plot is feasible enough, but his dialogue has people saying things no human being would ever say in such situations, and there are many instances of deliberate emotional pandering. A story that moves one to tears can be a wonderful thing, but it's off-putting when that effect is being sought for its own sake.

Abbie (Madonna) is a San Francisco yoga instructor; her best friend Robert (Everett) is a live-in gardener for two aging gay gentlemen. After his partner's death a few years ago, Robert has not had much of a love life, and now that her boyfriend (Michael Vartan) is breaking up with her, Abbie has no one, either. The two of them get together and, with the help of some potent wine, have one sexual encounter. Just when they are trying to decide how this event will affect their long-time platonic friendship, she discovers she's pregnant. She is unsure of what Robert's reaction will be, but is delighted when he chooses to fully assume the role of father to the baby, even though the two know they will never marry.

Cut to 6 years later. Abbie and Robert have made a comfortable life together and their son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) seems like a fun, intelligent, and well-adjusted kid. The trouble happens when Abbie meets Ben (Benjamin Bratt, Law and Order), a handsome, friendly investment banker with whom she establishes an instant rapport. Robert, who has given up his most recent lover because Sam was more important to him, is not particularly impressed by this genial interloper, but Ben's growing relationship with Abbie (and with Sam) culminates in their decision to marry. Robert's reaction results in a rash act by Abbie, which in turn leads to litigation. And it seemed like such a good idea way back when.

Rupert Everett saves this movie. Madonna and Stumpf are adequate, but unable to compensate for the script defects the way Everett seems to. (Incidentally, rumor has it that Everett did major rewrites to Ropelewski's text, causing some behind-the-scenes tension.) At first he seems bound to play Robert as a mincing queen, but when the situation gets tough, he drops the hilarity and shows us a man whose world is crumbling before his eyes. Bratt, on the other hand, is barely able to convince us of anything but his good looks. Ben is supposed to be so charming as to sweep Abbie off her feet, to draw her away from her lifelong friend and trusted partner, but Bratt does not possess the personality to pull it off. Sure, he's buff, but it's crucial that Abbie not look shallow in choosing him — and Bratt's performance gives her no other choice.

This film has many things going for it, not the least of which is the beautiful cinema by Elliot Davis (Forces Of Nature) and heartfelt, if spotty, performances by supporting cast members, including Neil Patrick Harris, Lynn Redgrave, and Illeana Douglas. Also there is Madonna's enjoyable rendition of Don McLean's "American Pie," a song that is featured throughout the film. But with textual flaws and stilted performances by some key performers, and an apparent inability on the part of director Schlesinger to deal with these problems, it's not exactly the best thing to hit the theatres lately. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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