Toward the close of John Schlesinger’s exceedingly melodramatic
new film, Madonna says to her co-star, Rupert Everett, “We’ve
sure messed things up, haven’t we?” No lie. This astonishingly
bad tearjerker, a Fannie Hurst weepie with a gay twist, is as
phony as a three-dollar bill and just about as entertaining.

To be fair, there might have been the germ of a decent idea in
Thomas Ropelewski’s script, about a gay man and a straight
woman trying to raise a son together; but the story’s been
fashioned as a clumsy soap opera no better than what one might
regularly encounter–or seek to avoid–on afternoon television.
In this meretricious final form, the plot concerns a thirtyish
woman (Madonna) who, after her boyfriend (Michael Vartan) leaves
her, finds herself pregnant following a one-night drunken
sleepover with her best friend, gay landscaper Robert (Everett).
The two decide to live together and raise the child as a couple,
even though they won’t marry and each will be free to enjoy
relationships in accordance with their individual inclinations.
After the passage of some years, with all going nicely, Abbie
finds a beau (Benjamin Bratt), and their decision to wed and
leave sunny California for New York leads to a bitter custody
battle over the kid, a precocious tyke named Sam (Malcolm Stumpf).
Much recrimination and many tears, hugs and pained conversation
follow, all presented in a lugubrious, florid style that
recalls such pieces of pop trash as “Back Street” and “Imitation
of Life.”

The film is yet another disaster for Schlesinger, who after much
early promise (“Darling,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Sunday Bloody
Sunday,” “Marathon Man”) has descended into utter hackdom in
his feature work (“The Believers,” “Pacific Heights,” “Eye for
an Eye”). (Happily his persistently fine television films–“An
Englishman Abroad,” “A Question of Attribution,” “Cold Comfort
Farm”–show that the talent is still there, waiting for the
right vehicle.) The cast, likewise, is overcome by the poor
material. Everett tries incredibly hard, but flails about
grotesquely as the sort of “wronged spouse” who might have been
played by in an earlier era by Lana Turner or Susan Hayward (or
by Claudette Colbert or Irene Dunne in a still earlier one);
it’s especially surprising to find him resorting to swishy gay
stereotyping in many scenes. Madonna puts a lot of effort into
her performance, too, but none of it seems to matter; the
singer is simply not an actress of any perceptible ability, and
remains remarkably inexpressive even at the most heated moments.
(The precise reason why she worked as the icily statuesque
Evita is why she doesn’t succeed in other roles.) Troopers like
Lynn Redgrave and Josef Sommer make it through their ill-written
sequences with only a glimmer of embarrassment; relative
youngsters like Bratt, Vartan, Illeana Douglas (as Everett’s
attorney) and Neil Patrick Harris (as an ill and therefore
“insightful” pal of Evrett’s) look good, but can’t do much
except attempt to recite their clunky dialogue without bursting
out laughing. On the other hand, Stumpf is simply insufferable
as the cute-as-a-button, wise-beyond-his-years Sam.

If you’re in the mood for a glossy, overheated cinematic
sudser, this bit of wretched excess might suit you. But
although it’s only March, it’s a fairly safe bet that when
December rolls around, “Best” will easily number among the
year’s worst.