Like a meeting of Douglas Sirk and Barry White, “Waiting to Exhale” smoothly combines the elan and emotional luxuriance of old-fashioned women’s mellers with a modern black-pop sensibility. Adapted from the bestseller by Terry McMillan, this tale of four women beset by romantic perplexities comes to life thanks to an appealing cast and skilled and imaginative direction by Forest Whitaker. Brimming with crossover potential, pic seems poised to inhale profits from moviegoers of many ages and tastes.
Co-scripter Ron Bass’ work with novelist Amy Tan on “The Joy Luck Club” is the most obvious precedent for pic’s comic-melodramatic focus on a tightknit female group. Atypical among recent screen blacks, the four friends here are well-off Southwestern suburbanites whose only want is romantic: All complain of the dearth of black men able to forge long-term commitments.
Bernadine (Angela Bassett) has perhaps the worst case. Her tycoon husband left her for his white bookkeeper without so much as a thank-you for the years spent assisting his career. After an initial bout of shock and fury, she’s torn between obsessing about his betrayal and trying to begin trusting other men.
Her friend Savannah (Whitney Houston) moves to Phoenix hoping to further her career as a TV producer and improve her relationship prospects. The latter proves more difficult: Obliged to choose between a handsome freeloader and a former flame who’s unhappily married, she has to wonder if being single isn’t her destiny.
For Robin (Lela Rochon), the chances for amour are numerous, but she has yet to find a mate among the sex partners. For Gloria (Loretta Devine), such chances are now mostly history; the oldest of the group, she’s got a 17-year-old son, an ex-husband who’s gay and no romantic possibilities until Marvin (Gregory Hines), a new neighbor, sets her dreaming again.
Briskly paced, pic deftly interweaves stories of the four women over a year, using their friendship mainly as the glue that binds the individual tales. While the essential theme is serious, the execution involves an adroit balance of laughs and drama. A bedroom romp between Robin and a wealthy suitor, for example , produces the funniest sex scene in recent memory, yet goes on to include a revealing discussion of the different things men and women want from life.
Assigned the pic’s meatiest (and perhaps largest) role, Bassett again proves her gifts with a performance at once fiery and delicate. Houston follows her “Bodyguard” debut with another glamorous turn, while Rochon’s spunky charm and Devine’s earthy aplomb round out the quartet of well-matched perfs. Whitaker’s acting background surely underpins the consistent strength of the ensemble here, including the solid male support team.
Even more striking, though, is the opulent look Whitaker applies, which recalls vintage studio pics in its deliberately unreal orchestration of rich colors, operatic lighting and picture-book interiors that have nary a throw pillow out of place. If such decors suggest adream of comfort, they also effectively create an atmosphere of heightened subjectivity that accords well with the story’s surging emotional currents.
Other formal elements used to notable effect include a soundtrack full of well-chosen songs (one a very clever use of Nino Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet” theme) and Babyface’s witty, inventive score. Remaining tech credits are all top-notch, with Toyomichi Kurita’s lush lensing proving a standout asset.