Wittier and more deftly constructed than “Love Jones,” though not as technically polished, the screwball comedy “Hav Plenty” chronicles the fables and foibles of a set of educated and sophisticated twentysomething blacks. Miramax release should score high among black middle-class viewers and, with the right marketing and handling, could significantly cross over to a more general audience.
Christopher Scott Cherot makes a splashy debut as writer, director, editor and star of this fresh, bittersweet, modern-day love story that recalls the early work of Woody Allen. Reversing the strategy of Spike Lee’s similarly themed, but femme-centered “She’s Gotta Have It,” Cherot makes himself the focus of his story as Lee Plenty, an always-broke would-be novelist who’s been living on the streets of New York, and off his friends, while waiting for the big break. Indeed, one of his best friends happens to be the rich and ravishingly beautiful Havilland Savage (Chenoa Maxwell), who invites him to a quiet and intimate gathering at her affluent family’s Washington, D.C., home for New Year’s Eve.
Like most screwball comedies, “Hav Plenty” begins schematically by establishing two appealing characters with opposite yet complementary personalities. Hav is a woman who has everything but love; Lee is a man who has nothing but love. Hav is aggressive, Lee is passive. Hav is always on the make, Lee is energetically unambitious. Hav is engaged to be married, Lee is a dedicated celibate. Very much in the tradition of Hollywood of yesteryear, everyone but the central duo knows that, despite a pile of obstacles and divergent lifestyles, they’re destined to be together.
What starts as a calm holiday outing turns into a chaotic weekend full of surprises, with Lee functioning as the desirable male for every woman in the multilevel household. Caroline (Tammi Jones), Hav’s pretentious, high-maintenance friend, shamelessly lusts after his body. Leigh (Robinne Lee), Hav’s newlywed but still uncertain sister, says she seeks only Lee’s company — but she won’t object to one “friendly” kiss in the kitchen. Hav’s old prep school pal Bobby (Kim Simmons) wants to share secrets with Lee. Only Hav’s bright and prescient grandmother is forthright in declaring that it’s Lee’s fate to marry Hav.
A shrewd writer, Cherot is careful not to repeat the mistake of “Love Jones,” in which the lovebirds consummated their relationship too soon. Cherot also knows that the trick of romantic comedy is to invent obstacles to what the audience perceives as unavoidably true love.
Acting across the board is lively and alert, with a standout central performance by Cherot, whose non-threatening good looks and easygoing charm make it abundantly clear why every woman in the film falls for him. Across the boards , the adult protagonists here don’t act like kids, and don’t try to be overly cute.
“Hav Plenty’s” raw look and low-budget production values work in its favor, separating it from most studio romantic comedies, which tend to be sleek, sterile and contrived. In his maiden effort, Cherot emerges as a significant talent to watch.