Interracial romance has become common enough that the arched eyebrows in recent films like “Guess Who” and now “Something New” belong to African-Americans, while a saintly white guy endures the abuse for his conflicted lover. Wispy at best, this romantic comedy from a first-time director and screenwriter feels as if whole chunks have been left on the cutting-room floor, with what remains mustering intermittent charm thanks to the attractiveness, if not chemistry, of Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. All told it’s more a heart than head movie, which should draw solidly in urban neighborhoods while possessing marginal crossover appeal.
This isn’t to say that the script by Kriss Turner doesn’t raise some fundamental issues about affluent black woman having difficulty finding suitable mates, or that the story as presented by musicvideo director Sanaa Hamri lacks moments. It’s only that so much of it is obvious and clunky, including protracted and preachy discussions about race, with one particularly unconvincing exchange occurring while the central couple wanders through a supermarket.
At its core is a sitcom setup: Numbers-crunching Kenya (Lathan) is on the partner track at her big, mostly white L.A. accounting firm, leaving scant time for life or romance. On Valentine’s Day, then, she’s hanging with her three girlfriends — all of them hyper-successful professionals — lamenting how 42.4% of black women will never marry. (Just to make the sitcom analogy more pronounced, Golden Brooks of UPN’s quartet-comedy “Girlfriends” is part of the foursome.)
Kenya insists she’s not picky but merely looking for a brother who’s “taller than me, college educated and not crazy.” So she’s taken aback when her white co-worker fixes her up with Brian (Baker of TV’s “The Guardian”), a handsome landscape architect rebounding from a recent breakup.
Resistant at first, Kenya eventually hires Brian to landscape her new house, and one kind of seed planting leads to another. Problem is she’s highly self-conscious about the relationship, and when she brings Brian around her black friends most of them act as if she’s sprouted a second head.
Such racism surely exists, but most of it here is too blunt and obvious. Along the way, a who’s who of African-American TV stars (including Wendy Raquel Robinson as Kenya’s friend, “Scrubs'” Donald Faison as her brother and Alfre Woodard as her disapproving mom) have a go at tearing the two apart.
The “boy loses girl” section, in fact, comes when Kenya is introduced to an elusive “IBM” (ideal black male) in the form of a corporate attorney played by Blair Underwood. Of course, he meets all the criteria on her list, forcing Kenya to reexamine what’s important, culminating in an ending that’s not merely sappy but flat-out silly.
Perhaps the best thing the movie has going for it, actually, is that despite the title, there’s really nothing new here at all; rather, the beats are so familiar the audience can fill in the gaps themselves. In that undemanding context, there are modest pleasures to be derived from the budding romance between Lathan’s high-strung gal and Baker’s earthy dude — and the discomfort it engenders.
Both leads would fare better, admittedly, if saddled with fewer speeches, but the movie clearly has social matters on its mind beyond the romantic comedy business at hand. Much of that centers on Kenya’s unease, which yields a few amusing scenes with her friends as well as one warming encounter with her taciturn dad (Earl Billings).
Lathan plays Kenya well as the ice queen, though she’s not given enough of a progression to achieve the melting process. Similarly, Baker lacks dimension other than looking buff while tearing up tree roots and zipping around in a beat-up truck with a Golden Retriever, which is movie shorthand for “nice guy.”
Look too closely and there will be questions about abandoned plot threads and excised scenes, among them what the hell “Cheers” alum John Ratzenberger is doing in a silent cameo. Then again, that’s why God (through his studio rep) created DVDs and directors’ cuts.
Judging “Something New” strictly on what’s there, meanwhile, finds an amalgam of recognizable themes draped around two pretty people who meet cute, mate cute, even split cute. For an audience provided sporadic gulps of such fare since “Waiting to Exhale,” that’ll probably be enough.