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Saturday, June 3, 2000

'THE NEXT BEST THING'

Warning: May harm your masculinity


Let me put it this way: "The Next Best Thing" makes me thankful I'm not a man. If I were, this is the kind of movie that would have me sprinting to the nearest Catholic monastery and pounding on the doors: "Please, save me, I'm not fit to date today's women!"

Call me a wimp, but "The Next Best Thing" is a scary movie. Starring Madonna and Rupert Everett, it starts out as this cuddly love story that quickly turns into a courtroom battle royal for child custody, which in itself is pretty frightening. But the part which had me-as-a-man clenching sweaty hands and moaning for mercy, was the way "The Next Best Thing" struts the sheer invulnerability of the Successful Woman.

And who better to play such a woman than Madonna: the feminine incarnation of the Arc de Triomphe, equipped to merge victorious no matter what. If she ever retires from the entertainment business, the U.S. Army is bound to take her on as a five-star general, I'm sure of it.

So it's Madonna and her real-life compadre Everett, in the respective roles of L.A. yoga instructor and gardener, the best of bosom friends. Robert (Everett) is a gay man whose close friend has just died of AIDS and in consequence is rethinking his lifestyle ("body obsession and one-night stands") while Abbie (Madonna) is mourning the collapse of her relationship with chilly boyfriend Kevin (Michael Vartan).

One night, over one comforting drink too many, they wind up making love. A couple of weeks later Abbie discovers that she's pregnant and offers Robert the option of becoming a daddy and having a family. Robert says yes. Thus Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) is born and for the next six years, the three are blissfully happy.

The snake in this little paradise is Abbie's longing for a real relationship, preferably with someone handsome, rich and understanding. Robert is a lot more cut and dried on this score -- he dates, but he never has anyone sleep over and never confuses his priorities. For him, Sam and his parental alliance with Abbie is sacrosanct, a fact which has extinguished the ardor of many a past lover.

Rather than adopt the same attitude, Abbie starts breaking rules left and right when she meets Ben (Benjamin Bratt), your basic tanned, yuppified investment consultant with a great personality -- if there could be such a guy. All her girlfriends go slack-jawed with envy and Sam takes to him straight away. Naturally, Robert's feelings are lambasted. What's more, Abbie is thinking of moving with her new beau out to N.Y. where a big promotion awaits him. Sam will, of course, have to go along and the thought of a long-term separation rips Robert's heart right out of his body.

Obviously, you've caught on that my sympathies are wholly with Robert. He helped Abbie through childbirth, contributed financially, changed nappies. A great and supportive dad. His only fault was not finding Abbie sexually attractive, but he does pay her a huge compliment (in his velvet voice): "You're the only woman I would ever want to . . . be." Plus, he makes an excellent roast beef and gets up early to make coffee.

This being the movies, Abbie has no idea that in the real world, women would kill for a partner like that -- she's ready to cut him loose the minute some straight guy with nice teeth shows up. What happened to friendship, or for that matter, to common decency? Here, Robert, cry on my shoulder and get yourself a lawyer.

Once or twice the scales tip ever so briefly in favor of Robert and these are the scenes which, between director John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy") and screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski, were concocted to poke a bit of fun at Madonna the Great. There's a scene where she's in front of the mirror and lifts her breasts up by about 5 cm saying "1989," then lowers them again: "1999." Chuckle, chuckle.

There's also the discussion between Kevin and Abbie in which he's explaining why he must leave her: "You're too perfect. You have this spectacular body, you're witty and interesting . . . I don't want to go to parties anymore and stand by while you get all the attention."

Having said all this, the fact remains: Madonna is gorgeous. She appears in a series of casual, Gap-like outfits that accentuate this gorgeousness and sync perfectly with the relaxed, happy successful mom image. Maybe it's all that yoga. In any case, this is a woman who has been brilliantly successful for the past two decades -- longer than Bill Gates. You think that such a personage would settle for the next best thing? No way in hell.

"The Next Best Thing" opens June 17 at Shibuya Tokyu Theater and other theaters.


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