Debuting filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood shows an admirable command of the technical aspects of filmmaking in “Love and Basketball,” a slick romantic drama about two L.A. athletes. Aiming to please at all costs, Prince-Bythewood’s narrative is too neat and its fairy-tale resolution too pat. But the pic is so well directed and lead performance by Sanaa Lathan so charismatic that audiences will overlook the script’s flaws and root for the central duo. With the right handling and marketing, this New Line film, scheduled for April 21 release, could become a hot date movie embraced by upscale black viewers, with some crossover appeal among young white urbanites and possibly reaching the B.O. of such recent black efforts as “The Best Man” and “Soul Food.”
Spike Lee proves himself a major force in the new African-American cinema, helping to expand its range beyond inner-city and crime dramas. Last year, he was instrumental in setting up his nephew Malcolm Lee’s romantic comedy, “The Best Man,” at Universal, and here functions as producer (with partner Sam Kitt).
Prince-Bythewood’s romantic drama centers on the friendship, rivalry and love between two youngsters from Baldwin Hills, an affluent black neighborhood of Los Angeles, who share an unquenchable passion for basketball.
Spanning close to two decades, yarn is divided into four segments, or quarters, as they’re called here.
The first, set in 1981, begins with Monica and Quincy as children, when Monica’s family moves in next door to Quincy’s. Shocked that Monica can play ball better than the boys, Quincy asks her to be his girl, and the two engage in a ceremonial kiss. But the bond lasts only a minute, because Monica is quickly outraged by Quincy’s macho attitude.
The second quarter, set in 1988, finds the couple in high school. Quincy (Omar Epps) is following in the footsteps of his famous father, Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert), an NBA player. Monica (Lathan) must face an arrogant Quincy, who has his pick of colleges — and attractive women. The two are clearly attracted to each other, and tension builds to a highly erotic sex scene.
It’s in this segment that scripter begins to develop her chief theme: Monica’s struggle to become a bright, independent woman, deviating from the subservient role of housewife played by her mother (a splendid Alfre Woodard), and refusing to conform to the characteristics of the ladylike type, despite the efforts of her sister and even her coach.
Main dramatic conflicts occur in the third, and best, quarter, which depicts how Monica and Quincy pursue their respective basketball careers as college sweethearts. Quincy, upset by the suffering of his mother (Debbie Morgan), is forced to realize that his adulterous dad is not exactly an idol. Quincy is also let down by Monica, who can’t join him due to a curfew before a big game. Determined to drop out of school and turn pro, Quincy breaks off their romance.
Cut to Barcelona, 1993, where Monica is immersed in her career. But professional fulfillment comes with the price of isolation and loneliness; she begins to doubt whether “being all about ball” is worth losing the love of her life, and can’t fully enjoy her success. Missing family and friends, Monica returns home, only to find Quincy engaged to be married in two weeks.
At this point, narrative follows the path of a screwball comedy, giving a new twist to the convention of preventing a lover from marrying the wrong spouse. Unlike Hollywood chestnuts, here a sexually aggressive woman pursues her man, attempting to open his eyes before it’s too late.
The storytelling is not always exciting, but a more serious problem is that yarn is not deep enough in showing the meaning of basketball for Monica; one never gets the feeling that playing ball is a necessity in her life.
In its insistence on gratifying the audience with an elegant movie at all costs, narrative resolves its strands all too tidily, including intergenerational tensions between Quincy and his father, Monica and her mother, and Monica and her coach.
“Love and Basketball” is the kind of Cinderella story in which the heroine gets it all, a movie whose commercial considerations must have dictated the yarn’s shape.
That said, there’s no doubt that Prince-Bythewood is a gifted director: The film is so suave, graceful and technically accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s a first-effort feature. Impressive production values, from lensing to costumes to musical score, all contribute to a glossy package.
Helmer is extremely deft with her cast, coaxing appealing performances from leads Epps and, especially, Lathan, who could likely parlay her good looks and acting skill into a major Hollywood career.
Supporting cast is equally adept; pic boasts standout character perfs from Woodard and Morgan, as the two loving, traditional mothers, and Haysbert, as the philandering hubby.
Effortlessly erotic in a way that few films are, “Love and Basketball” features a number of exciting sex scenes that may make it a hot date movie.