THE NEXT BEST THING
Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Madonna, Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt
Madonna is a great actress. Her music video performances are amazing - iconic and unforgettable. The frenetic nature of pop clips – where scenes are edited down to split second flashes and storytelling is broad, conceptual, picture-book - suits her scattered energies and aptitude for communicating trendy messages to a pan-cultural audience.
Feature film, however, is not her medium. On the big screen, Madonna strains to express contained ideas and emotions with spoken words and a series of natural-looking physical gestures through five-minute-or-longer scenes and her discomfort and confusion is clear to all. She can rip a flat sheet off a Venetian bed like no-one else can (”Like A Virgin”) but she can’t do a six minute talking scene to save herself.
On the big screen, Madonna looks bizarre and comes across like an old phonograph, playing its records grotesquely slowly, and in desperate need of a quick wind-up. And though she sings her own songs quite well, the inherent quality of her singing can’t carry a two hour pop-opera: Evita wasn’t the perfect combination of big screen and MTV, but a filmed version of a stage musical – a medium predating music video by centuries and totally unrelated stylistically, structurally and technologically – and she and the film flopped. Likewise, her vain campaigning for roles in adaptations of Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha suggest her misunderstanding that any theatrical or performative role suits her down to the ground. Only in Desperately Seeking Susan, a streetwise film made in music video language, did she really have a place.
So, her attempt to play Abbie, a groovy LA yoga instructor with a gay best friend (in other words, a grown-up Madonna wannabe), is doomed by the same blind ambition – spotting keynotes of her appeal in a role, Madonna’s jumped straight in assuming her charisma will transfer. It doesn’t. She’s as wooden and tortured in this film as she is in most of her others, and though it’s got John Schlesinger, Lynn Redgrave and Rupert Everett on board, The Next Best Thing doesn’t even live up to the modest claim of its title – it’s watchable, just.
Abbie and her best friend Robert (Everett) become accidental but enthusiastic parents after a drunken night of cavorting in Fred and Ginger dress-up ends in sex. Pause. Everything goes along fine for six years or so, until Sam (the awkwardly named Malcolm Stumpf) starts asking questions about his mommy and daddy, and Abbie falls in love with New Yorker Ben (Benjamin Bratt) and decides to follow her heart to the Big Apple, with Sam but minus Robert. Cue court case.
Laughs are pretty thin on the ground, and while the film’s quick pacing must have seemed like a good idea at the time, babies that vault into six-year-old sons while adult characters change not so much as a hairstyle, minor characters that disappear and reappear without warning, and healthy then suddenly degenerating HIV-positive friends (Neil Patrick Harris, “Doogie Howser”, dwells on his piles of protease inhibitors) make for a disrupted and rushed story. The sharp left turn at the start of the third act propels the film headlong into courtroom drama territory without warning, and at this point the film’s p.c. whispers about gay pride and non-nuclear families are suddenly cranked up to a deafening max.
Banished well and truly by this point are the interesting post-gay notes of Everett’s Robert which got short shrift in the first two-thirds of the movie anyway, compressed into single lines of dialogue (“sorry, but I failed gay history”, “I’m tired of the drugs”), and which were totally out of whack with the unquestioning gay positive tilt of the film in general.
Sam’s bleating questions at the breakfast table are the most intelligent lines in the film, and they’re left totally unanswered. Why do mommy and daddy sleep in separate beds? Why do my friends at school call dad a fag? What’s a fag, daddy – are you a fag? These are some of the challenging dilemnas faced by gay parents and their children, and they’re pertinent and fascinating. Instead, the film orders screenwriting value meal #3 – courtroom showdown with cute kid stretched on the rack between his fighting parents who need to grow up and do what’s best for their kid.