- Directed by Sanaa Hamri
- Written by Michael Elliot
- Starring Queen Latifah, Common, Paula Patton, Phylicia Rashad, Pam Grier and James Pickens Jr.
- Classification: PG
Rapper turned Oscar-nominated actor Queen Latifah plays a basketball-loving physical therapist who finds her game in Just Wright, a modern Cinderella story with an old-school sensibility that proves you don't have to change the rules to make a winning romantic comedy.
Technically speaking, this is a romantic sports comedy. We don't get many films in which these elements work well as a team. More often, we get sports flicks with romance on the sidelines - the underdog hero with a love interest there for inspiration, or for post-game embraces on a Jumbotron.
One of the best examples of the hybrid is Bull Durham (1988), which delivers the full experience of minor-league baseball, romance, and, of course, dialogue loaded with quotable zingers. That film is propelled by the seductive adversarial tension between Kevin Costner's philosopher/catcher and Susan Sarandon's book-smart fan/vixen. And it succeeds in postponing the romantic payoff. Most romcoms attempting that delay tactic instead give us screaming matches, ridiculous misunderstandings and other exasperating nonsense that bring us to the brink of loathing.
Just Wright eschews the hysteria and shenanigans of most rom-com flicks and makes the friendship zone the barricade to romance. This could be dull as dishwater, but director Sanaa Hamri and writer Michael Elliot - with story-crafting assistance from producer Debra Martin Chase ( The Princess Diaries, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) - keep it lively with a smartly plotted script and no wasted scenes. While the dialogue often feels perfunctory, the appealing characters and fine cast move it along with convincing warmth.
One short scene early on tells us all we need to know about the love life of Leslie Wright (Latifah). After a slam-dunk date, the guy admits he just wants to be friends; Leslie has heard it before. She climbs into her pumpkin, a beloved beat-up Mustang, and heads back to her New Jersey fixer-upper, where her attractive god-sister Morgan (Paula Patton) is crashing until she can land an NBA-star husband. One of the film's refreshing "twists" is that Morgan is no dumb floozy. She's reading how-to books on finding success in the corporate world - it's all about strategy.
The two friends hit a Nets game, where decked-out Morgan studies the players' wives and jersey-wearing Leslie scans the court. Later, Leslie encounters the Nets' All-Star Scott McKnight (Common) fumbling at the gas pump. She helps him out, there are friendship sparks and he invites her to a house party. Of course, Leslie brings Morgan, who noisily announces in front of Scott that she must leave the party due to a charity-work emergency - a strategic fib that eventually wins her an engagement ring.
Leslie is skeptical of Morgan's claim that she's become a better person thanks to her relationship with all-around good-guy Scott. And she's proved right when a serious knee injury takes Scott out of the game. Soon after installing Leslie as her fiancé's live-in therapist, Morgan realizes Scott might be permanently sidelined from fame and fortune and she bolts. Gradually, everyone gives up on Scott's chances for recovery. But not Leslie. Question is, does homeboy Scott know he's got a good thing?
NBA involvement in the film means rapper-turned-actor Common is surrounded by pros or former pros. And he looks good both on and off court in his first leading-man spin and strikes a genuine chemistry with Latifah. Their characters are flawless, but that's a minor quibble here.
Just Wright reminds us that when it comes to lasting romance it's really all about teamwork.
Special to The Globe and Mail