A sexy and appealing love story set in the flavorsome world of black bohemians in contempo Chicago, “Love Jones” gets it on in a very enjoyable way. Although it becomes a bit contrived and conventional toward the end, writer-director Theodore Witcher’s debut feature shows quite a few good moves, and Larenz Tate and Nia Long make an attractively hot couple at its center. This slickly made romance will be touted as something new in modern black films, a look at smart, middle-class urbanites without a gun or homeboy in sight, and pic’s fresh feel, along with a sultry jazz and R&B soundtrack, look to push it to sharp B.O. returns.
The world depicted here in sultry nocturnal colors is one of good-looking young men and women who are into jazz, poetry, photography, bongo drums, citing literary quotations and having high-spirited discussions about relationships and life. In other words, they are this generation’s bohemians, spiritual descendants of members of the Harlem Renaissance and Chicago arts scene of the ‘ 20s and ’30s, as well as of the mostly white hipsters of the ’50s and early ’60 s.
The focal point of the characters’ night life is the Sanctuary, a trendy nightspot featuring poetry and music, where the cocky Darius (Tate) one evening directs a highly erotic verse toward a particularly foxy member of the audience, Nina (Long), who is not very favorably inclined toward men since having been dumped by her boyfriend. Darius hangs with his friends, who include teacher Savon (Isaiah Washington), record store manager Sheila (Bernadette L. Clarke), Eddie (Leonard Roberts) and Hollywood (Bill Bellamy), but by the end of the evening Darius and Nina have made a connection that quickly leads into a pulsating affair.
Both the sexual preliminaries and after-match are handled in tantalizing, amusing fashion, and Witcher proves adept at writing provocative repartee that is deftly delivered by his leading thesps. The aborning relationship, which Darius and Nina each denies is anything other than a sex thing, is captured with just the right combination of breeziness and heat, and the fundamental rightness of these two people for each other makes “Love Jones” a true audience-pleaser.
But problems inevitably arise. Just as Darius dares to begin believing that Nina could be “the one,” Nina’s ex-beau Marvin (Khalil Kain) invites her to join him in New York to try to work things out. More as a test of Darius’ feelings than as an earnest attempt to resolve things with Marvin, Nina leaves, only to return to find that Darius has been fooling around with another woman.
At this, Nina steps out with Darius’ self-satisfied buddy Hollywood, sparking a blowup between the men and a reconciliation between the lovers, which doesn’t last, requiring yet another separation and subsequent attempt to set things right.
In these latter phases of the story, standard romantic melodrama rears its head rather more than is necessary, and the film loses a bit of the freshness and individuality that sustain it through most of its running time. Some viewers may also be bothered by such willful anachronisms as Nina’s always taking the train to New York, a frankly charming touch that is nonetheless never explained, and, in true bohemian style, the leading characters’ lack of any visible means of support; Darius is writing a novel throughout the picture, while Nina is fired from her job as a photographer’s assistant early on.
But the characters and the film have style, a flair and savoir faire that serve them well. The central romance is one you can get behind, the ultra-attractive leads are fine fantasy figures, and the world they inhabit is a seductive one in which it’s a pleasure to spend time. Witcher, who is from Chicago, has accentuated parts of the city that are largely unfamiliar to the screen, and lenser Ernest Holzman bathes the town and the characters in the most flattering romantic light.
The boxer-trim Tate injects Darius’ predominant self-assurance with comic eagerness and bottom-line vulnerability that create a winning and rounded characterization, and the beautiful Long proves a fine match as she firmly conveys Nina’s tendencies toward both uncertainty and bold action. Supporting turns are uniformly spry.
Roger Fortune’s production design adds luster to the film’s welcoming ambience, as does the lush score by Darryl Jones, which is abetted by upward of two dozen smartly chosen tunes of various musical stripes.