February 9, 2006

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FILM: Something New (PG-13)
by Amy Diaz

Can a girl be a successful professional, own her own home, find the man of her dreams and have a wardrobe to die for? Something New says yes, she can!

Also, she can get a fantastic yard.

Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) might seem like the girl with everything from the very beginning of this movie. She is, after all, a well-paid professional who owns a lovely (if very beige) wardrobe of professional clothes and lives in a lovely (if very beige) house in Los Angeles and has a group of close friends. Kenya and her friends, however, feel their success has put them in a tough situation, manwise. They are all upwardly mobile African American women, a status they earned by putting nose to the grindstone and by not spending a lot of late nights at the clubs. The results are a lot of very quiet love lives and an economic status that has them looking at their tax bracket and higher for romance. Kenya’s particular list of positive boyfriend attributes also includes a skin hue similar to hers, which turns a blind date with white landscape architect Brian (Simon Baker) into a socially awkward situation. After a few rather hilarious attempts at reaffirming her blackness — as though being seen with a white man could get her a scolding — Kenya blows Brian off, only to have an even more awkward reunion with him at the engagement party for the girl who set them up in the first place. Kenya might not know what to do with the glimmerings of attraction she feels for the man but she knows she’s head over heels about his work. She hires him to landscape her backyard and, naturally, one thing leads to another and eventually they’re twisting up her expensive beige sheets.

As always happens in the movies when free spirit meet responsible girl, Brian’s wooing of Kenya leads her to show off her naturally curly hair (instead of her straight, corporate weave), incorporate a little color into her wardrobe and her home décor and spend some of her non-work hours actually not working. She’s happy, she fulfilled at home and at work (where she’s nearly made partner) and she’s loving the changes in herself (which, she says, aren’t really changes but a display of who she really is). Nonetheless, there’s still that white thing. Her friends and her family push her to have her fun with Brian, if she wants, but to keep an eye out for the black man that she should marry. A man like the single, successful doctor (Blair Underwood) her brother (Donald Faison) works with.

Something New has all the standard romantic comedy elements: the perfect-for-each-other couple, the minor hurdle to their romance which will take 90 minutes to surmount, the bitchy status-conscious mother, the understanding father, the mouthy but loving friends. The movie fits all these pieces together as good as any heavily formula-driven movie does and better than most. Remove for a minute anything you might call a “theme” and the movie is sort of a better than average satisfier of the need some people have to see true love conquer all.

But then consider the themes. Sure, Something New takes place in a world of astounding affluence but it deals with the almost untouchable subject of class in America. One of Kenya’s friends is dating a man who also doesn’t quite fit the dream guy profile — he’s a chef, not a suit-and-tie corporate type. While he also appears to have the world at his feet, financially speaking, the implication is that he’s socially and economically not at the friend’s level. And, while the movie ultimately comes down on the side of love, communication and understanding conquering all, it acknowledges that economic status is an issue.

With Kenya, economics and the implied economics of the tie-wearers versus the jean-wearers are also issues. Blair Underwood’s character is more “right” for her because he wears a tie and works indoors and practices the same moderation of personality that Kenya did before meeting Brian. It’s not that a life with Brian means poverty. But to people like Kenya’s mother (played with the right edge of graspiness by Alfre Woodard) it might, however unconsciously, mean the appearance of an economic status that they fought so hard to rise above.

This isn’t just a “black” issue; it’s an issue that couples face anytime they get together across class lines. Money is in the top three of most fought-about issues in marriage and how we’re raised affects our relationship with money and status.

But then add to that racial differences — Kenya frequently talks about the “black tax” that requires her to work twice as hard as her white colleagues — and you can see why, even some 40 years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, interracial relationships can offer complicated, layered nuanced stories in ways they never did before. (And I think stories like this — which look at these issues in shades of gray because “black” and “white” do not mean the same monolithic thing they used to — will only become more relevant and worthy of exploration as Hispanic culture and issues become more visible in movies and on TV.)

Something New is not a perfect movie nor is it terribly novel. But it pokes around in places that most films fear to go and it does it without losing its sense of humor or its sense of romance. B+

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