Vanessa Middleton

An entertaining comedy about a bunch of New Yorkers all facing their 30th birthdays, "30 Years to Life" does what it sets out to do without breaking new ground. Writer-director Vanessa Middleton's background in TV comedy is evident in the film's sitcom style. But the witty dialogue and likable characters make this a fresh entry for cable and video.

An entertaining ensemble comedy about a bunch of African-American New Yorkers all facing their 30th birthdays and the accompanying expectations of growth, commitment and responsibility, “30 Years to Life” does what it sets out to do without breaking new ground. Writer-director Vanessa Middleton’s background in TV comedy, most notably on “Cosby,” is evident all the way in the film’s sitcom style, which neglects only to pause for a laugh track. But the attractive cast, witty dialogue and likable characters make this a fresh, intelligent entry for cable and video.

Its sleek veneer, smooth R&B soundtrack (by hip-hop producer Timbaland, doubling here as exec producer) and its focus on good-looking, successful, young black urban professionals place the production in a category with features like “Waiting to Exhale” and last year’s gay foray into the same territory, “Punks,” among others.

While these films undoubtedly help broaden the scope of black screen characters, they all represent fairly unadventurous filmmaking, especially in comparison with the New Black Cinema exponents that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s, like Spike Lee, John Singleton and the Hughes brothers.

Unfolding over the course of a year in which the characters each cross the 30-year threshold, the comedy groups together an investment banker (Melissa De Sousa), whose terminally single status leads her to date the wrong guys; a standup comedian (Tracy Morgan), who’s been the next Eddie Murphy for longer than he cares to remember; a commitment-phobic guy (T.E. Russell) and his increasingly impatient partner (Erika Alexander); a real estate agent (Paula Jai Parker) dealing with the lifelong stigma of a weight problem; and a handsome marketing exec (Allen Payne), whose fear of getting old prompts him to ditch his career and pursue modeling, and whose taste for sex without emotional attachment is beginning to seem flavorless.

Dialogue occasionally feels overloaded with relationship maxims. But despite its sitcommy feel, Middleton’s polished writing and amusing observations about the anxieties most people encounter when definitively farewelling their youth help compensate for her standard-issue direction. Appealing cast members bring warmth and humor to their roles, and the characters are confidently steered toward satisfying conclusions of greater self-awareness and acceptance.

30 Years to Life

Production

An Oasis Entertainment presentation. Produced by Gingi Rochelle. Executive producers, Vanessa Middleton, Timbaland. Directed, written by Vanessa Middleton.

Crew

Camera (color), Cliff Charles; editor, Gershon Hinkson; music, Timbaland; production designer, Liba Daniels; art director, Dale Corvino; costume designer, Chasia Kwane; sound, Michelle De Chiara; associate producer, Andrew LeBlanc; line producer, Felice Schachter; casting, Winsome Sinclair. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2001. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Joy - Erika Alexander Natalie - Melissa De Sousa Troy - Tracy Morgan Stephanie - Paula Jai Parker Maleek - Allen Payne Leland - T.E. Russell Brian - Kadeem Hardison

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