Something New Review
By Shawn McKenzie 02/03/2006
I’m a white guy who has no problem with other skin colors. While I’ve dated mainly white girls, I did once date a black girl. For me, it doesn’t matter what color a girl is…I’m just attracted to her personality. It’s almost common now to see a black man dating a white girl, yet it is frowned upon in the vice versa scenario. Something New is a surprisingly fresh take on the clichéd chick flick genre.
Kenya Denise McQueen (Sanaa Lathan) is a black senior funds manager at a prominent accounting firm in Los Angeles who is successful and intelligent. She has to deal with the “black tax” though…meaning that she is forced to work twice as hard as her white colleagues do in order to prove her worth. According to her boss, Edwin (Matt Malloy), she is poised to become a partner at her firm, as long as she can effectively broker a takeover for a client named Jack Pino (Stanley DeSantis), who is hesitant to work with her at first (just because she is a black female for some reason.) It seems that her professional life is right on track…but her personal life isn’t so successful. Her three friends, Cheryl (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Suzzette (Golden Brooks), and Nedra (Taraji P. Henson)…all highly successful black women themselves…want her to find a man, but they can understand her predicament. According to a Detroit Free Press poll, that all of them apparently are familiar with, approximately 42.4% of upper class black women will never marry…and Kenya doesn’t want to be a statistic. It’s not that she isn’t attractive…quite the opposite. She just has unreasonably high standards…he has to be taller than her, educated, and professional. She is looking for the perfect IBM…the Ideal Black Male. Kenya has recently purchased a new home, and she has to deal with the pressure coming from her parents Joyce (Alfre Woodard) and Edmond (Earl Billings.) Joyce is a high society woman who wants her to find a man of equal status, and Edmond is the head of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai who just wants to see his daughter happy. On Valentine’s Day, Kenya’s co-worker, Leah Cahan (Katharine Towne), who is getting married to a man named Paul (Eric Ekholm), sets her up on a blind date. Kenya is apprehensive at first, but her friends encourage her to loosen up and take a chance on some fun. She goes on her blind date in a Magic Johnson’s Starbucks, but she is surprised to see that her date, a landscape architect named Brian Kelly (Simon Baker), is white. He is certainly not an IBM, being both white and blue-collar. She leaves the date quickly with a lame excuse, but Brian can read between the lines. Later, at Leah’s engagement party, she is talking to Leah’s mother (Lee Garlington) and admiring her landscaping. Kenya is desperately in need of someone to redo her badly neglected backyard, and Mrs. Cahan recommends the man who worked on her yard…Brian. Kenya begrudgingly decides to hire him, and he shows up the next day with his friendly Golden Retriever Max. She is uncomfortable with him at first, but with him being non-judgmental and clearly attracted to her (plus she lusts after him when she watches him pull out a tree stump with his shirt off), they eventually become a dating couple. He introduces her to things that she isn’t familiar with…like colors other than beige (her mother says that bright colors are for “children and whores.”) He takes her hiking, and he finds it funny how she is afraid of spiders (as a joke, he sends Kenya a copy of Charlotte’s Web with “Charlotte” crossed out and “Kenya” penned in to her office.) This relationship becomes a problem for Joyce and Kenya’s friends…along with some of the other men in her life. Her younger brother Nelson (Donald Faison)…who always has a different girlfriend every time she sees him, including Stacy (Tanisha Harper), Kiki (Michelle Griffin), Luna (Kimberly Barnett), and Lauren (Rose Rollins)…thinks that Brian is the wrong guy for her. Cheryl’s new boyfriend, a chef named Walter (Mike Epps), whom she met at Leah’s engagement party, isn’t sure of Brian’s motives. Kenya starts becoming annoyed with her girlfriends, especially since Walter is blue-collar himself and Nedra is dating a married man named Kyle (Henry Simmons.) In an attempt to have Kenya date a proper IBM, Nelson introduces her to a friend of his named Mark Harper (Blair Underwood), a successful tax attorney from St. Louis who just so happens to be black. The pressures start to get to her…and after a nasty fight in a supermarket, she and Brian break up. She starts dating Mark, and he starts dating his white ex-girlfriend named Penelope (Julie Mond.) Both of them still have feelings for one another, and if they can face the prejudices from everyone all around her, they may end up living happily ever after.
“New” is certainly the theme of this movie. Director Sanaa Hamri is making her first feature, having previously directed music videos for Mariah Carey, Prince, and more. She is using a script from another newcomer, Kriss Turner, who previously worked on scripts for UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris” (a show in which she also co-executive produces), NBC’s “Whoopi,” and FOX’s “Living Single.” Together, they have come up with a story that is sexy, entertaining, and yes…a little familiar (at least in romantic comedy terms.)
The cast is excellent all around. Lathan is stiff as a board at first…but that was exactly how she was supposed to be played at the beginning. Baker has regained my likeness for him. After his Golden Globe-nominated performance as a former drug abusing lawyer forced to do pro bono work for child services on CBS’s “The Guardian,” he started appearing in some horror movies that were good (last year’s Land of the Dead) and horribly bad (last year’s The Ring Two.) While I’ve never seen the other two movies in his filmography listed on IMDb (2001’s The Affair of the Necklace; 2004’s Book of Love), it didn’t appear to me that he could do comedy, much less be a romantic lead. This movie has proven that he can do both, and his chemistry with Lathan is hot (their PG-13-rated sex scene is very spicy.) None of the supporting characters gets much screen time, but they make due with what they are given. Robinson, Brooks, and Henson throw in their two cents worth of advice to Kenya in various degrees. The male supporting characters were more interesting. Faison, whom I love on NBC’s “Scrubs,” is a mess of contradictions. He dates a new girl in every scene, yet he doesn’t want her dating a white guy, even if it is just for a fling. Epps’s character is initially suspicious of Brian’s intentions, but once he realizes that they are both blue-collar workers, he comes to accept the guy. I love Epps too, but he has always played the goofball in most of his movies. While he is allowed to show off his comedic side here as well, this is the first movie I’ve seen him in where he displays that he can also do drama (I didn’t figure that he had that in him.) Woodard is like Terrence Howard from last year…she is appearing in all sorts of good projects, all at the same time. She stumbled with last fall’s “Inconceivable” on NBC, but now she is the mysterious Betty Applewhite on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (she also recently appeared in the CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie “The Water is Wide.”) Coincidentally, she played Lathan’s mother in 2000’s Love & Basketball. Veteran TV actor Billings turns in a short but nice performance as the sympathetic dad, in contrast to Woodard’s uptight mother. Underwood seems always to play the IBM, but he does it well. The only odd casting was that of “Cheers’” John Ratzenberger, who appears in the end and doesn’t have any lines (my assumption is that he is playing Brian’s father, but I guess his scenes were deleted, because the movie really doesn’t explore Brian’s side of his family. Those scenes will probably be on the DVD.)
There is nothing new coming out of Something New in terms of a romantic comedy (the ending is very formulaic), but in terms of romantic race and economic relations, it is new. While they have already showed a black girl dating a white guy in last year’s Guess Who (and also on TV 30 years ago on CBS’s “The Jeffersons”), this is the first time I have seen that type of relationship fully explored until this movie. If you don’t see it just for watching the exploration of race relations, at least go to it to see an enjoyable date movie.
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