“Brown Sugar” is like two movies in one. The first, and by far the more interesting, is a sort of love letter to hip-hop music. If it were allowed to dominate, Rick Famuyiwa’s film might have been an interesting picture. Unfortunately, that part is encased in a really silly love story with exceptionally uncharismatic and tedious lead characters–one of those foolish confections about two people who refuse to acknowledge that they’re meant for each other although it’s perfectly obvious to everybody else from the start. (Consider it a version of the “Pillow Talk” formula with a couple of African-American yuppies replacing Doris Day and Rock Hudson.) The only question is how long it will take them to realize they should be together. In this case, the answer is: much too long.
The destined pair is Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan). They met, as a flashback tells us, as kids in 1984, while enjoying an impromptu hip-hop performance on a New York street, and they’ve been best buddies ever since. But apparently they’ve never considered each other as romantic partners, though both go into occupations related to the music they love: he becomes a record exec, she a music critic and magazine editor. When Sidney moves back to New York from L.A., it’s just in time to help Dre celebrate his marriage to hot-shot lawyer Reese (Nicole Ari Parker); and eventually Sidney gets engaged too, to slick basketball star Kelby (Boris Kodjoe). But their musical interests, as well as their concern for one another, keep the two close. When Dre quits his job because his boss signs such phony acts as Ren and Ten, white-and-black “Dalmatian” rappers (Erik Weiner and Reggi Wynns) and starts his own label, it’s Sidney who bankrolls him (though where she gets the dough on a writer’s salary isn’t clear–but everyone here seems preternaturally flush); and even though he’s a married man, Dre seems awfully jealous when Sidney and Reese announce their engagement. Needless to say, in the end things all work out–not only do the duo get together (minor matters like weddings and betrothals couldn’t possibly stand in the way of True Love), but their careers take off, too, in a finale even more hokey and unreal than any that Doris and Rock ever endured.
Of course, the formula also requires a couple of comic pals, and it’s here that “Brown Sugar” follows the pattern of its 1950s and 1960s predecessors and comes off best. Just as Tony Randall or Gig Young invariably overshadowed Hudson, so Mos Def puts Diggs in the shade as Chris, a cab driver turned hip-hop artist. Diggs isn’t terrible–just terribly ordinary–but Def gets in an especially good riff on “Casablanca,” and his laid-back, sad-sack quality is very appealing. Queen Latifah isn’t quite as successful as Sidney’s buddy Francine, in whom Chris develops an interest. Latifah is clearly game, but the dialogue she’s given isn’t nearly as spiky and clever as it should be. Lathan, meanwhile, is more earnest than endearing. Parker and Kodjoe, however, are both extremely attractive (perhaps they should have been the leads), and Weiner and Wyns milk as few chuckles from an awfully obvious routine. Famuyiwa’s direction is workmanlike at best (his 1999 effort, “The Wood,” had more verve), and overall the production is reasonably good-looking; but none of it is enough to overcome the predictability of the plot and the weakness of the script. On the other hand, the soundtrack will probably prove enough of a draw for hip-hop fanciers (and the picture does make some interesting observations about the difference between it and rap). To this listener, though, both genres seem to offer little beyond a few repetitive rhythmic riffs, and when Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” suddenly appeared in the background, it was a bit of melodic balm, even in the second-rate rendition heard here.
But that’s just a matter of taste. Had “Brown Sugar” given more attention to the music and less to the artificial romance, it might have been a winner. Instead it comes across as synthetic and rather bland–more like “Brown NutraSweet.”