Painting by numbers often gets a bad rap: While it takes little originality to fill in the romantic-comedy blanks, even a simple, competent job can sometimes feel like a breath of fresh air. Conventional in every way save for the coupling at its center, “Just Wright” largely succeeds as a handsomely mounted showcase for Queen Latifah, as well as some well-shot basketball footage, even if its guilelessly upright characters can often steer it toward blandness. Fox Searchlight release should do just fine as early summer counterprogramming.
Even in the femme-skewing world of romantic comedy, one is still far more likely to see a physically perfect woman opt for a chubby, schlubby older man than vice versa, and “Just Wright” deserves some plaudits for reversing the trend. Though Latifah can hardly be described as schlubby here — in fact, she looks great in an assortment of sensible dresses, and seems to be enjoying the chance to play a more vulnerable, outwardly feminine role than usual.
A physical therapist often seen driving an ancient Mustang, Leslie Wright (Latifah) is an Everywoman Cinderella, forever stuck in the “friend zone” with potential dates, thanks in part to the constant presence of her model-esque, gold-digging best friend, Morgan (Paula Patton).
Heading home after watching her beloved New Jersey Nets (who, requiring the pic’s biggest suspension of disbelief, are a championship-bound team), Leslie runs into star player Scott McKnight (Common) at a gas station, where she helps him find the gas tank on his gleaming new SUV. In addition to his good looks, wealth and celebrity, Scott is also a perfect gentleman — we know this because at least three characters, including Scott himself, describe him in exactly those terms — and rewards Leslie’s help with an invite to a birthday party at his palatial estate.
Despite some initial sparks between player and fan, Scott opts for the prettier Morgan as soon as she enters the picture. The two are headed straight for wedding bells until a serious knee injury throws Scott’s playing career off-track, and Leslie moves into his pad for full-time rehabilitative duty. Though a glance at the film’s poster (as well as common sense) will give away the final romantic destination for these two, the film takes its time allowing Scott and Leslie’s relationship to build, perhaps recognizing that its unlikeliness requires a bit more care than the usual narrative shortcuts.
While the two protagonists are certainly pleasant company (they both love Joni Mitchell! And homemade desserts!), screenwriter Michael Elliot’s unwillingness to allow them even the slightest of flaws becomes a bit wearying; in this film’s ethical universe, even the “wicked stepsister” is never allowed to display behavior any worse than slight cunning.
Bearing unexpected resemblance to a slimmed-down Carlos Boozer whenever he dons a basketball jersey, Common is a perfectly likable presence on film, but he’s not quite ready to handle the rigors of a leading role, however light on emotional heavy-lifting this one may be. Phylicia Rashad and Pam Grier make the most of their exposition-heavy roles, and pro ballers Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade are both quite good in small parts (playing themselves, but still).
Veteran musicvid director Sanaa Hamri shows the expected skill with the pic’s kinetic basketball footage and lavish parties, though less so in its quieter moments, which sometimes seem to lack the proper pacing.
Technical contributions are all slick and effective, and special care seems to have been paid to the many Jersey locations, NBA licenses and luxury automobiles on display.