Something New

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Here’s a bit of trivia that a publicist pointed out to me: “Something New” was written, directed and produced by three African-American women. Considering Hollywood is run mostly by white men, and that you can count the black female directors on two hands and still have fingers left over, a film being made entirely by women of color is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, the movie itself is not. “Something New” is a rather ironic title, given that the film is as stale as last year’s canceled UPN sitcoms. Its characters are drawn with broad strokes, and its protagonist — in a fatal move — is frigid and unrelatable.

Still, director Sanaa Hamri (working from a script by TV writer Kriss Turner) manages some warmth and the occasional laugh in this story of a Los Angeles corporate accountant named Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) who finds, loses, and regains love in classic romantic-comedy fashion.

In the movie’s typical shorthand style, we know Kenya is tamped-down and uptight because she wears her hair in a bun and dresses in severe black suits. Also, she gets up at 6 a.m. each morning to go power-walking. She’s an accountant. This is all movie code for Serious, Intelligent Woman. All of these traits are listed in the Handbook of Generic Characters.

Kenya tells her friends — all successful black women like her — that what she wants in a guy is that he be “taller than me, college-educated and not crazy.” He also needs to be black. We discover this when she is set up on a blind date with a man named Brian (Simon Baker), a landscaper who is perfectly charming and decent but who has the misfortune of being white. Kenya rejects him, then is reintroduced to him, then hires him to take care of her backyard, and then lets him take care of her front yard, too, if you know what I mean. (Since everything in the film happens generically, when do you suppose their first kiss occurs? That’s right: after being caught in the rain.)

Soon they are dating, which appalls Kenya’s snooty, hyper-educated family. Does such blatant racism exist in the world? No doubt. But the film fails to make it seem believable, resorting instead to crazy-sounding declarations from mom (Alfre Woodard) and brother (Donald Faison).

Furthermore, while Kenya eventually comes around to realizing that prejudice against whites is a lousy attitude, the movie never indicts such racism nearly as strongly as it does the opposite, i.e., where whites discriminate against blacks. Kenya’s brand of bigotry is cute and good for a few chuckles — but when her white clients don’t trust her to handle their finances, THAT kind of racism is SERIOUS BUSINESS.

Such glaring faults in the movie’s world-view indicate carelessness on the part of the filmmakers. But the more relevant problem is that the movie just isn’t very funny. You’ve seen all of this before, with more charming actors in more intelligent films.

It’s a shame, because Hamri shows promise as a director. She has a respectable knowledge of what one calls “the language of film.” I note that some scenes are lit so that Brian and Kenya’s skin tones appear almost identical — surely an intentional, subtle commentary on the characters’ situation, and a nicely accomplished one.

Finally, Sanaa Lathan’s performance as Kenya is too frosty for its own good. Kenya exhibits a lack of humor and a too-serious focus on the racial divide between her and Brian. You wonder why a jovial fellow like him would stay with a woman like her. It must be true love.

C (1 hr., 39 min.; PG-13, some innuendo and sexual dialogue, a little profanity.)

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