All the complaints about the recent trend of older man-younger woman films can stop now that “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” is upon us. Outrageously glossy and sometimes quite funny, this fantasy-driven romance about a gorgeous woman who rediscovers her sexual self in scenic Jamaica is choppy, poorly structured and unconvincing on any number of levels, but still holds strong appeal for precisely the same audience that made Fox’s previous Terry McMillan adaptation, “Waiting to Exhale,” a surprise hit in 1995. This time, though, it won’t be such a surprise. Slick production is an ideal girls-night-out attraction, as well as sure-fire date fare.
Based on the semi-autobiographical McMillan bestseller that was published on the heels of the theatrical release of “Exhale,” which grossed $67 million domestically (but only $13 million overseas), “Stella” puts a contempo black spin on the so-called Hollywood “women’s picture” featuring an uncommonly attractive character discovering passion, and the complications that ensue, in a glamorously exotic setting. As such, it is pitched directly to the public — i.e., black women — that, in the wake of “Exhale,” everyone suddenly realized was being woefully underserved by Hollywood. The broad comedy and overt romantic/sexual content, however, will go down easily with any crowd that doesn’t feel superior to it.
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Stella (Angela Bassett) is a stunning, perfectly fit, high-powered 40-year-old San Francisco stockbroker with a sumptuous home in Marin County and a well-behaved 11-year-old son. In other words, she’s a totally realized woman — except, natch, for her love life, which the divorcee’s workaholic lifestyle has squeezed into oblivion.
When son Quincy (Michael J. Pagan) goes to stay with Dad for two weeks, Stella uncharacteristically allows herself a Jamaican vacation with best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), who’s as loose and fun-loving as Stella is regimented and cautious. Ready for a week of partying and whatever action she can get, Delilah encourages her friend to let herself go, something hesitant Stella begins considering after she meets a strikingly handsome local man with the unlikely name of Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs).
The only problem is that Winston is just 20 years old, or young enough to be Stella’s son. But Winston is persistent enough to get his foot in the slight opening in the door of Stella’s resolve, and the two beautiful people inevitably end up between the sheets in Stella’s fancy bungalow with its resplendent view of the beach and sea.
The half-hour the picture spends on its first visit to Jamaica is, in its flaunting way, quite entertaining, first and foremost because Goldberg has no end of sassy, sarcastic one-liners that she socks over to maximum effect. Adding to the fun are two foppish fellows (Richard Lawson as a lanky stutterer and Barry “Shabaka” Henley as an overweight and hilariously brazen party animal) and pic’s show-stopping scene at a pajama disco bash at which the boogying guests are soon encouraged to shed what meager threads they may be wearing.
So far, not bad. But when Winston, whose well-spoken manner and med-school ambitions cast some suspicion on his seemingly penniless condition, suddenly gets an assistant chef job that will seriously cut into further sack time, the miffed Stella — along with the movie — abruptly returns to San Francisco, where she not only gets no end of lip from her two sisters, brassy ambulance driver Vanessa (Regina King) and the pregnant, more decorous Angela (Suzzanne Douglas), about her affair, but amazingly finds herself squeezed out of her job.
Stella’s firing seems particularly implausible after the way her expertise and money-making skills have been established at the outset. Nor are details subsequently provided about the big settlement that would surely be hers or a lawsuit she threatens at one point.
On the romantic front, things also become murky. Instead of leaving well enough alone and maturely accepting her fling for what it probably should remain, a wake-up call for her libido, Stella returns to Jamaica — this time with son Quincy and niece Chantel (Sicily) in tow — to discover that Winston is a rich boy whose proper mother bluntly accuses Stella of being a cradle snatcher.
This embarrassing situation is conveniently cut short when Stella is paged to comfort the critically ill Delilah in New York, and remainder of the picture lurches awkwardly about as Winston turns up in Manhattan, then heads for Marin to see if there’s a future with Stella, who continues to agonize about the age difference. Pic wanders on and on in desperate search of the finish line which, when located, could not be sillier or less convincing.
Like “Waiting to Exhale” except more so, film jerks from scene to scene with little sense of rhythm, continuity or dramatic shaping. Unlike classic melodramas in the vein of “Stella Dallas” or “Imitation of Life,” there are no privileged moments here in which one is afforded glimpses into the heroine’s soul. In essence, scripters McMillan and Ron Bass, who first teamed on “Exhale,” create scenes that alternately hit moments of high comedy and high crisis, with no nuance or subtext.
Indeed, what you see is what you get, which is insured by first-time feature director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, a former teen actor and proficient TV writer-producer-director who most recently helmed the HBO film “Soul of the Game” and here buffs the production’s already shiny surfaces with countless layers of polish. Sullivan allows the expansive personalities of his appealing actors free rein and gets good mileage out of the material’s raucous comedy, but hits the reefs whenever he steers out of shallow water.
The dazzling Bassett is a delight to watch throughout, and obligingly plays second banana to Goldberg whenever the latter turns up to steal any and every scene she wants. King also provokes plenty of laughs as Stella’s uncensored younger sister, while Diggs, making his film debut after a Broadway stint in “Rent,” has the widest, brightest smile the screen has seen since Julia Roberts first appeared and is every bit the dreamboat he’s meant to be.
Lustrous production values are designed to enhance the world of extreme privilege inhabited by the characters. Soundtrack is heavy with a combo of upbeat numbers and sexy R&B tunes.