“The Next Best Thing” to a good movie is a well-intentioned one, and at the end of the day, that less-than-compelling consolation prize is about the best thing one can hand this resoundingly adequate Advanced Family Values comedy-drama. Playing pals who raise a child together, topliners Madonna and Rupert Everett should boost pic to OK opening B.O. numbers, drawing on considerable curiosity in the gay community and her pop fan base. But likely lack of much critical enthusiasm or positive word-of-mouth will induce quick theatrical falloff, with better news likely down the line for rental merchants.
Lower-case opening credits augur film’s low-key style, which in theory would lend it a warm, pleasing modesty but in practice makes it seem more like a glossy programmer. Opening finds L.A. yoga instructor Abbie (Madonna) distraught as b.f. Kevin (Michael Vartan) moves out. Abbie finds comfort as usual in the tart but affectionate company of her best friend, gardener Robert (Everett), who’s gay.
A few too many commiserative margaritas one night find the duo — who otherwise play opposite ends of the Kinsey Scale — getting horizontal together, which event renders their relationship awkward for a while. But some weeks later amends must be made, given a surprise development: Abbie is pregnant. With a lack of credible emotion that’s too typical in Thomas Ropelewski’s screenplay, romantically unattached Robert gulps at the news, shrugs and promptly commits to co-raising the tot-to-be as a live-in dad.
We must assume that transition went without a hitch, since pic hopscotches forward to precociously well-adjusted Sam’s (Malcolm Stumpf) sixth birthday party. Certain inevitable, if discomfiting, Parental Instruction Moments aside (schoolyard jibes prompt Sam to query whether “faggot” means “when two boys kiss and they go to the opera”), this unconventional domestic setup is sailing just fine, though disillusioned stay-at-home Abbie can’t suppress a jealous twinge over Robert’s still-active sex life. That’s nothing, however, compared with latter’s boorish, petty response when she suddenly finds a Mr. Right in hunky investment banker Ben (Benjamin Bratt).
Peevishness turns to alarm as this relationship grows serious. Worse, Ben shows every sign of being a terrific father … er, stepfather. Robert goes nuclear once it looks like mother — and child –might make a marital move to NYC, where Ben’s firm offers him full partnership. When tensions reach a crisis point, Abbie “kidnaps” Sam, moving into her beau’s local abode. This unfortunate situation leads to the courtroom, where Robert and his level-headed attorney (Illeana Douglas) plead for joint custody — a remote hope, especially given a rather gratuitous late plot twist. But things end with all-around rapprochement.
Vet helmer John Schlesinger treats the story mutedly, which helps keep matters from getting too maudlin. But it doesn’t help them get much of anywhere else. Initial demi-comic tone is borderline-bland, while script just doesn’t attain the dramatic import or character complexity needed for later melodramatics to seem less than forced. Principal figures are all so nice and decent we can’t buy the notion that they’d quarrel so far as an ugly — and child-damaging — estrangement, let alone court battle.
Everett gives these scenes his best shot, limning a father’s terror of losing his son as credibly as he earlier conveys the papa-bambino bond. Thesp’s exemplary timing makes much of middling comic opportunities. And though his co-star gets her own full glamour treatment, his looks and physique are exploited here to unabashed beefcake effect.
As for Madonna and that eternal question — is she a movie star or, more basically, an actress?– by now, 15 years after “Desperately Seeking Susan,” it can only be considered a moot point. Sporting her curly-auburn, modified-hippie-chick look here, she’s lovely, earnest and capable enough. (Enough with that mid-Atlantic Anglophile accent, however.)
Yet in a part Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts could well sleepwalk through, Madonna still lacks the ability to imbue a character with the simple charisma that connects with camera or audience. Of course, this has never been her problem in other media — but such are the mysteries of life. Her perf settles into a dullish groove (mooning about looking unfulfilled), then a duller one (weeping in nearly every later scene, a tack deployed to better effect by Cecilia Roth in concurrent “All About My Mother”).
Bratt delivers the required bucket o’ charm with ease. Pic’s inconsequential feel is abetted by a roster of supporting figures that script fails to make much of, including Lynn Redgrave as Robert’s supportive mum and Josef Sommer as his pricklier pa. Neil Patrick Harris plays a grieving friend whose lover’s funeral provides an awkward excuse for the first among many versions of Don McLean’s 1973 hit “American Pie” — a song motif used here for no evident reason beyond the fact that it’s the new Madonna single.
Feature pads off the beaten track by presenting a soft-edged, quaint, leafy-hilly L.A. milieu, with production design, costumes and cinematography leaning toward Southwestern pastels. Gabriel Yared’s score is on the treacly side. Other tech aspects are smoothly handled.