Ms. Houston, We Have a Problem

Waiting to Exhale has a phony gloss that makes it feel faintly retro. All those impeccably dressed actors ambling around Phoenix locations like Arizona Biltmore, declaiming their emotions in smooth 'n' silky tones--it's rather like a two-hour commercial for Martini & Rossi.

Based on a popular novel by Terry McMillan, the film traces a year in the love lives of a quartet of friends, single black women somewhere between 20 and 40. There's an overweight drudge of a single mother (Loretta Devine), a gullible sex kitten (Lela Rochon), a rich guy's wronged ex-wife (Angela Bassett) and a lonely career woman (Whitney Houston).

These character descriptions may sound a little crude and sketchy, but the script doesn't fill in the brush strokes much more fully, and the actresses can only try. Forest Whitaker, an actor of frequent brilliance, makes his feature directorial debut (he previously directed a made-for-cable film); he gives his four ladies a burnished glow and keeps them swathed in chic. But the dialogue, by McMillan with an assist from that king of edge-softening rewrites, Ronald Bass (Dangerous Minds, When a Man Loves a Woman), is so blatantly engineered toward jazzing the audience that it precludes character development. Almost every line is a stimulus response for a cheer or a groan.

Each of the four women wants a man in her life, and, as far as we are shown, wants very little else. But the men we are shown, with one or two token exceptions, are, in the vernacular, dawgs--two-timers who fear commitment, or prefer white women, or lie about their intentions to leave their wives, or do drugs, or are just plain sorry in the sack. This is the age-old problem the film outlines: The good ones are all taken, and if they can be stolen, it probably means they weren't good ones, after all. A lot of the bad ones are taken, too.

This is not, to put it mildly, virgin terrain. Waiting to Exhale's aesthetic spin on this sisterly bonding soaper material is the perspective of successful upper- or middle-class black women--their very real fear, for instance, that they'll be edged out by white women for the upscale guys is inadequately explored as a movie subject. Sadly, this film's exploration of it is also inadequate.

The film's commercial draw, of course, is Whitney Houston--her pop enormousness makes Exhale a marketer's dream. The irony is that she's the least prominent of the four stars here. The Bodyguard showcased her, and did that (if little else) very well, but in this ensemble, her flat acting is more evident. And, pretty as she is, she's the least flatteringly photographed. The camera leers at Rochon as for a Playboy spread: Decked out in lingerie as often as possible, she's all cuddliness and melting grins. Devine has a bustling maternal solidity, and her flirtation with the movie's one unambiguous good egg of a man (Gregory Hines) is rather sweet.

The only one of the four who really shines, however, is Bassett, who's becoming one of my favorite of current young actresses. She looks sensational (sorry to keep harping on appearances, but the film simply doesn't offer much more), and, though her role is no less cliched than the others, she at least gets a chance to cut loose emotionally a few times, as when she sets fire to her husband's stuff in front of her house.

She even brings off the film's corniest scene, involving a mystery man from back East (an unbilled Wesley Snipes). She and Snipes bring some sexiness and class to this Bette Davis-Paul Henreid malarkey. Every time I've seen Bassett--in Malcolm X, Passion Fish, What's Love Got to Do With It, Strange Days and even Vampire in Brooklyn--she's been terrific. Just wait until she gets a role that's not underwritten. Then you'll hear some exhaling.

For me, hope springs eternal when it comes to Mel Brooks. After The Producers and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the guy can make lousy movies until he dies and, as far as I'm concerned, he'll still be on the credit side of the ledger. Still, it would be great to see him find his footing one more time, to make one more picture that was vitally funny, not just a sad reminder of past glories.

The "forgotten" Brooks film, 1976's Silent Movie, was beguiling in its small, limited way, but since then, Brooks has been good only in small fits--the Inquisition number in History of the World--Part I, his Sinatra takeoff in High Anxiety, and a few scattered gags in the mostly abysmal films that followed. The trouble seemed to be his desperate willingness to try anything, instead of almost anything, for a laugh, even if it violates the mood he's trying to create in order to parody. Worse still has been his tendency to scale back his raunchy and tasteless side in the name of the family audience. Kids, sad to say, are about the only audience members left who haven't seen most of his gags already.

Unfortunately, Brooks' latest, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, does little to reverse any of these trends. It's obviously an attempt to return to the horror-spoof glory days of Young Frankenstein by giving Bram Stoker's yarn its fair shtick. But it doesn't have the superbly authentic, vintage feel that Young F had, and Leslie Nielsen, who has done some truly wonderful things in recent years as a reformed straight man, walks through his turn as the count--he doesn't replace George Hamilton's send-up in Love at First Bite.

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