Back in 1999, Malcolm D. Lee’s debut feature, “The Best Man,” had all the hallmarks of a low-key groundbreaker: Smart, sophisticated and effortlessly charming, the film was a sleeper success at the B.O., and seemed to point toward a lucrative future for cosmopolitan romantic comedies featuring actors of color. Fourteen years later, it’s disappointing to note just how few features seem to have followed in its footsteps, and almost as discouraging to see Lee return to the same well with such disjointed results in “The Best Man Holiday.” The returning ensemble cast remains eminently watchable here, and should help position the Universal release as a profitable counterprogrammer, but the cluttered, overlong narrative never really finds its footing.
Wagering that fans of the original remember its sizable cast of characters with a level of recall most commonly seen in Marvel fanboys, the film offers only a few remedial clips from “The Best Man” over the opening credits, as well as some lightning-fast catch-up. We learn that protagonist and onetime best man Harper (Taye Diggs) topped the bestseller list with his semi-autobiographical novel, while his now-pregnant wife Robyn (Sanaa Lathan) is a superstar chef. Harper’s estranged best friend, Lance (Morris Chestnut), is nearing the end of his final season as a running back for the New York Giants, poised to break the all-time career rushing record while his wife (Monica Calhoun) and four angelic children gaze on beatifically.
Julian (Harold Perrineau) and his former-stripper wife, Candace (Regina Hall), run a luxe private school; bachelor-stoner Quentin (Terrence Howard) helms a branding agency; and platinum-haired harridan Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) has found her calling as a reality TV reprobate on a “Real Housewives” spinoff. Meanwhile, Jordan (Nia Long) is now a high-powered TV producer, dating a studly white lawyer (Eddie Cibrian) to the shock and titillation of her old friends, who have apparently never encountered an interracial relationship in all their years among the New York media elite.
This motley group of former college buddies, lovers and antagonists gather to spend Christmas weekend at Lance’s gargantuan country estate, the first time they’ve been reunited since Lance’s wedding 14 years earlier. A wealth of old jealousies and hostilities remain waiting to be unearthed, complicated by the fact that Harper, suffering from writer’s block and money woes he’s kept secret from his wife, has agreed to write an unauthorized biography of his famous host.
Lee’s screenplay contains a number of winning lines, and he’s admirably willing to tackle some tough issues, but he never settles on an appropriate tone. For much of the first hour, the filmmaker orchestrates an ungainly polyphony of fast-moving hijinks, smutty dinner-party conversations, inopportune entrances, cell-phone mix-ups, attempted husband snatches and blackmail, with mounting conflicts periodically interrupted by abrupt cuts to sexytime montages and weirdly well-rehearsed New Edition dance routines. Roughly halfway through the two-hour-plus running time, one character reveals a tragic secret, and the film switches gears on a dime, filling the second half with tearful fights, reconciliations, Christmas miracles and chest-beating religious invocations.
The original “Best Man” juggled most of these disparate elements and tones, too, but it managed to do so far more organically, in a way that made sense for a group of twentysomethings still finding their way in the adult world. To see these characters indulging in the same catty asides and childish histrionics while pushing 40 begins to strain audience sympathy, particularly when there are a number of genuinely affecting grace notes and plot threads buried within all the noise.
Most notably, the central relationship between Harper and Lance is sensitively sketched, delineating the complicated ways that adult male friendships can seesaw between resentment and vulnerability, and Harper’s increasing desperation to keep up appearances in the face of financial hardship strikes a painfully realistic chord. Yet Lee surrounds this solid foundation with far too many contrived subplots for it to resonate as deeply as it should. His affection for these characters is obvious, and while he’s nothing if not democratic in his allocation of redemptive arcs to each and every actor onscreen, a good deal of clear-eyed pruning would have done a world of good.
Which is not to say that the supporting ensemble doesn’t do its part; in fact, without such an overstocked bench, things could have become a real mess. Howard clearly relishes the chance to reprise his scene-stealing breakout role; De Sousa provides some outrageously hissable villainy; and Long is so sharp and luminous in what should be a tiresome role, as a commitment-phobic career woman, that one can’t help but mourn the number of such parts that have routinely gone to Katherine Heigl instead.
Production design lays on the luxury signifiers with a trowel – these characters were always bourgeois, but now their lifestyles seem only a few steps removed from Saudi royalty – but otherwise the film is professionally shot and assembled, with an ace soundtrack full of soulful yuletide tunes.