Novelist Terry McMillan (“Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”) has become the culture’s primary purveyor of middle-class African-American romances. It’s the evocation of the social milieu, one that’s unquestionably under-depicted, at which she excels, writing with a genuine sense of reality about all of the pressures that make relationships — especially between black men and women — so very difficult to sustain. But her books, and the movies based on them, have never become more than enclosed soap operas, and HBO’s “Disappearing Acts” represents another example of this glossy but aimless storytelling. Pic’s attractively shot, well-cast, and boasts a high-quality soundtrack, but plods along in a predictable, repetitive pattern of argument and reconciliation.
Cable made-for is clearly directed at a female audience, which HBO has been courting with its originals after many years of male-dominated efforts. Wesley Snipes provides the biggest name, but the focus here is really on the character played by up-and-comer Sanaa Lathan (“Love and Basketball”). She portrays Zora Banks, a music teacher with ambitions to make it as a singer-songwriter. She’s not really looking for a relationship when, upon moving into a new apartment in Brooklyn, she meets, and soon falls for, Franklin Swift (Snipes), a construction worker who specializes in restoring brownstones.
Like Zora, Frankie has plans: he wants to get his contractor’s license and start his own business, and he knows that the timing’s not ideal for a serious relationship. But the two can’t help themselves, and a brief montage of sex scenes interspersed with games of Scrabble mark their evolving love. Soon, though, some secrets begin to emerge that at first challenge the stability of the relationship and then bring the two lovers even closer together. From there, the story follows the ebb and flow of the union over a period of about a year.
There’s a hearty supply of episodes in “Disappearing Acts.” We follow not just the relationship, but the ups and downs of the characters’ careers, their aspirations seeming close to fruition at one moment, further away than ever the next. The most compelling elements of the relationship involve the interaction of money and self-esteem. Zora periodically finds herself supporting Frankie financially, but it’s just at those times when Frankie feels least supported emotionally.
McMillan and screenwriter Lisa Jones are better at amassing the details than they are at making deeper sense of them. There’s much here that’s present but unexplored with any nuance — Frankie’s drinking, for example, or Zora’s epilepsy. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood goes a long way toward unifying all the events into a building narrative, making particularly effective use of songs (from artists such as Chaka Khan, Nina Simone and the duo Melky Sedeck) to advance the emotional storyline. But, while Lathan and Snipes have decent chemistry, the film never quite gets us to root for these characters enough to keep the story from edging consistently toward the tiresome.
Lathan delivers a solid performance, always investing Zora with a sullen quality that’s appealingly soulful. Snipes has a harder task — his character is far more changeable, moving rapidly from suavity to insecurity, and the actor is always engaging even though he never quite seems to bring the disparate tendencies of Franklin together. In fact, Snipes’ perf covers a bit too much ground; it seems during some scenes that he really is playing a different character.
Tami Reiker’s cinematography, the design work, and the tech elements are all of feature quality, and HBO, along with Snipes’ company Amen Ra, deserves credit for having a female-driven creative team. This is a pic that has a classy sheen and, despite its flaws, will almost certainly appeal to its target demo.