Not many movies are built on the foundation of the characters’ (and the filmmakers’) love of something, so the central role played by hip-hop music in the lives of everyone in “Brown Sugar” will stand the picture in good stead with its intended audience. A love story in which the inevitability of the eventual union of leading man and woman is obvious to all except them, this first foray into film production for exhibition entrepreneur (and former hoops star) Earvin “Magic” Johnson is equal parts soundtrack and lightweight romantic comedy-drama. Too mild to be a likely candidate for crossover to a wide public, Fox Searchlight release is nonetheless sufficiently smooth, sexy and tuneful to score nicely with youngish viewers attracted by the scenic cast and date-night potential.
“You’re turning into a Terry McMillan character,” Queen Latifah’s character sasses early on to Sanaa Lathan’s very proper black urban professional; the comment could easily apply to just about everyone on view here, so refined and rarefied is everyone’s taste in clothes and home furnishings, and so apparently unlimited are their budgets.
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As if bumping the upwardly mobile young characters in his 1999 debut feature “The Wood” several notches higher on the socioeconomic ladder, director and co-writer (with Michael Elliot) Rick Famuyiwa situates the story in a near-fantasy world of high-bourgeois consumption. When Lathan’s street-raised but now successful New Yorker waxes nostalgic about the music of her youth and complains, “I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling,” it’s no wonder why.
A music journalist newly returned from L.A. to her hometown of Gotham, Sidney (Lathan) has a sure-fire technique for drawing out her interview subjects: Her first question is always, “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?” For her and her childhood friend Dre, it was in the summer of 1984, and that link has fueled a tight friendship that’s lasted ever since without ever sliding over into romance.
At a Def Jam party in the Bronx, Dre (Taye Diggs), now a producer for Millennium Records, surprises Sidney by publicly proposing to his extra-hot attorney g.f. Reese (Nicole Ari Parker). To anyone who’s interested, Sidney says she doesn’t date because she can’t afford to waste her time with men she knows won’t be “on the same page” with her, but it’s clear that, her protests notwithstanding, she still carries a torch for Dre.
What follows is a series of modest farcical obstacles that Dre and Sidney must stumble over before they finally see the light. What would be heavy events in real life — Dre’s marriage and departure from his lucrative job, Reese’s infidelity, Sidney’s eventual engagement to handsome pro basketball player Kelby (Boris Kodjoe), Dre and Sidney’s problematic flings with intimacy — are tossed off almost as casually as a suddenly out-of-style outfit, and invariably to the accompaniment of an appropriate song.
A crumb of psychology would have helped. While Lathan invests Sidney with a credible seriousness, the crucial question of why she’s resisted testing the amorous waters with the obviously willing Dre all these years remains mysterious, as does her entire romantic history until she meets the irresistible Kelby.
Equally cavalier is the film’s attitude toward money, which allows a mere journo to be able to unblinkingly write a hefty check to help her buddy launch his new record label; in a world marked by a number of unlikely propositions, this one takes the cake.
But as eye and ear candy, pic has its modest pleasures, beginning with the attractive Diggs and Lathan, both of whom appeared in “The Wood” for Famuyiwa. Diggs exposes the insecurities beneath Dre’s slick looks with nervous grinning and gesturing, while Lathan invests Sidney with a healthy degree of self-confidence even though the character is plagued by uncertainties.
Key supporting players are vibrantly watchable even if their roles aren’t as developed in the writing as they might have been. Mos Def is in for mostly comic relief as a talented rapper with commercial/career issues who sheepishly comes on to Sidney’s best friend (an effortless Queen Latifah), a role that could have used more crackling lines. Parker and Kodjoe sizzle as partners who are, in the end, just too much for their respective mates, while Erik Weiner and Reggi Wyns score a few laughs as a lame “Dalmatian” rap duo named Ren and Ten.
Tech contributions are smooth as silk, and bulging soundtrack runs to 45 tunes.