The Best Man Holiday
"The Best Man Holiday" is a rare beast among the assembly line offerings that come from Hollywood studios: it's a film without a genre. The sequel, which very belatedly follows-up 1999's "The Best Man," criss-crosses between modes liberally: It's a weepy tearjerker and a screwball comedy; a "hang out" movie devoid of narrative concerns in one moment, and a religious allegory that thrives on high drama in the next. There's a fair few criticisms you could throw at the picture, but you certainly can't reduce it to a one-word description.
That's partially because it relies -- quite extensively -- on your familiarity with the first film. The whole gang returns, and while a catch-up montage spliced throughout the opening credits aims to help new viewers dive into the story, most of the picture's subtleties will be wasted on those unacquainted with the cast. For the uninitiated: There's Taye Diggs as struggling author Harper Stewart, and Sanaa Lathan as his very-pregnant wife Robin; football star Lance (Morris Chestnut) and his devoted wife Mia (Monica Calhoun); Terrence Howard's soulful playboy Quentin and his flirting-partner Shelby (Melissa De Sousa); philanthropists Julian (Harold Perrineau) and Candice (Regina Hall), who struggle with the latter's past as a stripper; and finally Nia Long's Jordan, the archetypal strong-independent-but-can't-help-but-feel-lonely female character.
The first "Best Man" dramatized Lance and Mia's wedding. The devoutly spiritual couple struggled with past infidelities while the rest of the gang revealed their long-held secrets, exacerbating their problems. That movie took an admirably agnostic angle: Lance and Mia's beliefs were regularly undercut by their actions, and it ended on a note that refused to validate nor criticize their beliefs. The sequel, a Christmas-set reunion film, takes an entirely different approach, reveling in religion.
What makes this change so interesting is how far director Malcolm D. Lee is willing to take it. Without spoiling anything, there's no last-minute reprieve or deus ex machina to prevent tragic events in this movie, and many an audience member at the screening I attended was left wiping away tears in between the laugh-out-loud moments. It's screwball, imbued with sniffles.
Lee deftly manages the conflicting tones with workmanlike efficiency, moving back and forth between melodramatic moments caused by the revelation of Mia's terminal illness and bust-a-gut gags predicated on the group's bed-swapping, playfully promiscuous manners. His "Holiday" never reaches the comic heights of the film that preceded it, but that's because he's casting a wider net, also aiming for dramatic stakes and uplift alongside sexy humor.
Yet many of these moments are misjudged, and overplayed to the nines. A would-be cathartic moment, where Lance throws his hands to the sky and the camera assumes the position of the eyes of God, had as many viewers giggling in embarrassment as those genuinely affected. "The Best Man" is at its best not during these moments, but merely when the characters are joined around a dinner table, bantering endlessly about race, love, religion and whatever else comes to their minds. There's a snappy propulsion to those sequences, aided by Lee's quick-cutting close-up shots, that gives the film a relentless energy. Their pleasures outweigh those offered by the moments of pathos quite significantly.
"Holiday" is aiming to offer us a profound emotional experience alongside the humorous observations, and falls pretty short. When Lee is content to let his characters hang out, his picture plays as smoothly and as naturally as any Hollywood comedy made in recent memory; the charisma and chemistry shared among the actors renders itself an indescribable breath of fresh air among the broad machinations of pictures like "The Heat," "We're the Millers" and "Identity Thief." It's unfortunate that the film strains for more -- it's most loaded moments, its most dramatic, are also its most conventional.