It will be an overwhelming temptation for any critic to say that “Just Wright” goes terribly wrong. But it would be unfair. This isn’t an awful romantic comedy, just a frail and feeble attempt at one, marred by a predictable trajectory, clunky dialogue, and a crushingly dull desire to be nice at all costs.
Queen Latifah continues her project to become the new Doris Day as Leslie Wright, a hard-working physical therapist and Cinderella surrogate who’s also a huge fan of the New Jersey Nets and their star player Scott McKnight (Common). Leslie owns a house in a middle-class suburb, which her handyman daddy (amiable James Pickens, Jr.) is haplessly trying to fix up for her while her mama (Pam Grier, wasted) keeps urging her to get a man. But of course Leslie’s the kind of down-to-earth gal fellows always prefer as their best friend rather than their fiancee. She’s also encumbered by the presence of her pal Morgan (Paula Patton), a gorgeous woman whose only goal in life is to bag an NBA player as a husband. This self-absorbed gold-digger is crashing with Leslie, since she’s jobless and has to spend any cash she has on cosmetics, hair stylists and designer clothes. And Leslie’s mom keeps citing her as the example her daughter should follow!
The plot kicks in when Leslie meets McKnight cute at a gas station and is invited to his birthday party. Naturally Morgan insists on tagging along, and before long has manipulatively coaxed the rather dense guy into proposing to her, even though his mom (Phylicia Rashad, amusing) has doubts. Those concerns prove well-founded when Scott suffers a knee injury in the all-star game that threatens to end his career. Morgan unceremoniously returns his ring and decamps for greener pastures.
But before she does so, she contrives to replace Scott’s statuesque blonde rehabilitation specialist with the unthreatening Leslie, and wouldn’t you know it, before long she and the pro are personally as well as professionally linked. And Leslie, of course, proves the best medicine ever, managing not only to get the injured man back into the starting line-up by playoff time but providing him with a last-minute pep talk that convinces him to overcome his jitters and be all he can be on the court.
Naturally, the course of true love cannot be allowed to run smooth, and so Morgan reappears to ask Scott for a second chance. And he, being the perfect gentleman, agrees, sending Leslie back to her always-the-bridesmaid earlier life. But that only sets things up for the inevitable realization of which duo really belong together.
This is nothing more than your typical lightweight romantic triangle movie, with the basketball background apparently added to make what’s obviously a flick targeted at women more palatable to the husbands and boyfriends they’ll bring along. But it fails on both sides of the equation. The central relationships are of soft-ball sitcom quality, without any edge to them; everybody is so nice that they’re almost insufferable. Latifah tones down her customary sauciness to make Wright more a long-suffering drudge than a vivacious, self-sufficient woman. And though Morgan is really a despicable character—one really wonders how she and Leslie ever became friends, and why Wright doesn’t kick the selfish back-stabber out of her house at the first opportunity—Patton plays her as almost pleasantly thoughtless, and in the end she abruptly forgoes her own machinations for Leslie’s benefit; for the sake of the plot she simply abandons her selfishness. But the female characters are nothing compared to McKnight, who’s so chivalrous that costumer David Robinson might actually have clothed him in shining armor. In fact, all the NBA players are portrayed as perfect gentlemen, supportive of one another, courteous to others and without a sexist bone in their well-honed bodies. Such an airbrushed version of the league, hardly consonant with what we always hear in news stories, may have been a requisite for getting management cooperation in making the movie, but it represents a sports fairyland as absurd as any Disney flick. (The incessant mention of Izod as the Nets’ chief sponsor, moreover, is product placement at its absolute worst.) To add to the problem, Common is unconvincing as Scott. He’s acting is barely passable—he’s another rapper who could do with more classes—but in this case his lack of height strains belief that he could be a real pro star. He looks more like a water-boy, or at best a bench-warmer.
Perhaps one might be more inclined to overlook the script’s flaws and cast problems if Sanaa Hamri’s direction had more verve and sense of forward motion. But except for the game footage, which is energetic enough, the movie proceeds at a laggard, lackadaisical pace, perhaps dictated by the decision to tone down Latifah’s ebullience but nonetheless enervating. The technical credits are all pro level, with Terry Stacey’s camerawork using the locations effectively. But ultimately “Just Wright” feels like one of those playoff games where a team shoots ahead by twenty points; it turns into a yawner.