By Scott Mendelson
Something New isn't. Something New is actually a stock romantic drama, a slight reworking of the romantic drama archetype. Of course, formula isn't always a bad thing. Movie making is often less about what and more about how. A good film can survive unoriginality if it is stylistic or fresh in its approach. Alas, Something New isn't any of those things to the extent to which it can overcome its trappings.
The plot: Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a 30-something African American accountant who, along with her friends, mourns the lack of quality African American men in the dating pool. Her friend attempts to help by setting her up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). Alas, Kenya refuses to date white people, so she basically flees in terror. Fate plays a hand as they meet again and she ends up hiring Brian to landscape the yards of her new home. Romantic complications do eventually ensue as Kenya must come to grips with her feelings toward Brian, her prejudicial notions about dating outside of her skin color, and her idealized idea of who she wants to spend her life with.
The film confronts, rather bluntly, the casual racism that can exist in the black community. As Brian enters Kenya's world, he is constantly a target of offhand racial barbs and off-color jokes that would force a public apology were the skin colors reversed. Kenya's family is upfront in their disapproval of her 'skiing the slopes' and her friends initially aren't much nicer about the subject (though they warm up much faster). In fact, it's a bit shocking to see Alfre Woodard, who usually plays the voice of reason and wisdom, portraying such a bigoted and unsupportive mother figure. There is also a token mention of her workaholic lifestyle, though the film refreshingly doesn't have her quit her successful and high-paying job and become a dog walker, unlike the otherwise terrific In Her Shoes. Also refreshing is that Brian's eventual rival for Kenya's affections (Blair Underwood) is not a villain, which makes the drama that much more credible.
As promising as the film is, it falls short in several key areas. First and foremost, the dialogue is often absurdly on-the-nose. Big ideas and themes are explicitly detailed in the dialogue, often in platitudes, instead of flowing naturally. This problem reaches a paramount during a climactic speech by Kenya's boss, which unintentionally comes off as highly condescending (though it is appreciated that her boss is also not villainous). This lack of subtlety also extends to the direction itself, with several shots that highlight Brians' manly' landscaping work to the point of humorous leering.
Speaking of Brian, he is presented as a nearly perfect creature of patience and comfort. Granted, this is not the first romantic drama where a perfect man is consistently and unfairly pushed away from a the selfish and often cruel female lead, only to come back hat in hand to the point of sadomasochism (most Julia Roberts comedies and the later seasons of Friends spring to mind), but it's still annoying. Throughout the film, we learn very little about Brian's life outside his work and his courtship of Kenya. Ironically, there probably was a subplot involving Brian's family, but it was cut out. We know this because John Ratzenberger shows up at the very end in a literally wordless 30-second cameo. Surely he had more scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.
There is much to like about Something New, which makes the fatal flaws all the more aggravating. The film's eventual message is worth hearing, and it's well acted, but the writing fails it and the whole package just feels too much something old to recommend outright. Still, it's miles better than the usual romantic tripe offered around this season and if a date movie is inescapable, and he or she isn't willing to try Brokeback Mountain, then Something New will probably be an acceptable substitute.