2013 is a year that has largely been defined by unnecessary, after-the-fact sequels that virtually no one asked for and even fewer have shown up to (sorry, "Riddick," we know your heart was in the right place). Maybe the most baffling of these sequels, however, is "The Best Man Holiday," a sequel to 1999's "The Best Man," a movie that people barely remember, let alone cried out for a follow-up from. Still, like some kind of viral outbreak or a coyote in your back yard, "The Best Man Holiday" is here, whether you want it or not, and you just have to deal with it.
The original "Best Man" was an enjoyable comedic drama that focused on a group of college friends who are reuniting for the wedding of a superstar football player friend of theirs. It was overly complicated and way too long, but it had its own kind of frothy charm and a killer soundtrack full of late-'90s party jams. In many ways, it functioned as a kind of African American answer to "The Big Chill," except with extensive, college-era flashbacks featuring Morris Chestnut in a do-rag.
The titular best man of the first film, Harper (Taye Diggs), was a young novelist whose first book was about to be published. In typical comedic fashion, the novel was based on the group of friends and their college lives, including lothario Quentin (Terrence Howard), nebbish Julian (Harold Perrineau) and, of course, the groom himself, Lance (Chestnut). There's a lot of dude talk about sex, some sexual fumbling, revealing secrets and a near-murder, and the actresses assembled to play on the other half of this insane football game (including Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Melissa De Sousa, Monica Calhoun and Regina Hall) were totally up for the melodramatic, occasionally madcap proceedings. It was great for what it was, and looking back on the film, you can see the way that it inspired Tyler Perry's cottage industry of black-targeted entertainment.
In "The Best Man Holiday," which has the dubious distinction of being an unnecessary sequel and a Christmas movie, all of the characters reunite for a holiday weekend at Lance and his beloved bride Mia's expansive New England home. Harper has fallen on hard times; he's been fired from his professor job at NYU and his last few novels haven't exactly been blockbusters. But his silver lining could be his former best friend Lance, who is about to retire from football after breaking some kind of record, but has yet to name his official biographer… Could he mend the friendship and make a lucrative business deal? The other characters have similar problems, including one who finds video evidence online of his former-stripper wife blowing a college kid and another who feels emotionally adrift after years engaging in the swinging bachelor lifestyle.
For a while, "The Best Man Holiday" is just as much laid back fun as the first film. The actors all have an undeniable chemistry, and it's good to see them back together again (Howard, in particular, seems to have beamed his whacked-out performance in from an orbiting galaxy). At times, the sequel seems to have improved on the original, by giving just as much screen time, if not more, to the female characters and it's lovely to see their interpersonal connections form and bend. In particular, the relationship between Harper's wife Robin (Lathan) and Jordan (Long), his romantically tenuous BFF, feels genuine and ripe with dramatic and comedic possibilities. There's also the antagonism between Julian's ex Shelby (De Sousa) and his new wife Robin (Lathan), a casual cattiness that eventually erupts into one of the very best cat fights in recent cinematic memory. This is a ferocious, nails-and-hair-tugging fight, weaves be damned.
About midway through "The Best Man Holiday," though, it runs into trouble: instead of riffing on "The Big Chill" like the first film, it instead takes its inspiration from "Steel Magnolias." The perfectly calibrated ratio between comedy and drama gets thrown out of order, with every character crying (dramatically) at least twice, sharing long-winded dialogue about the nature of god and faith, and even more hurt feelings than the first film (amazingly). It's all a bit overblown, especially when every painful revelation is accompanied by Stanley Clarke's insanely low rent score that fluctuates between jazzy '70s porn riffs and the active chirpiness of an overactive videogame.
While the movie might become more eye-rolling by the minute, particularly when a character advocates that his wife's ill health is now in "god's hands," a statement that, in 2013, doesn't just seem stupid but downright negligent, it still maintains a modicum of grounded reality. Besides whatever is going on with Terrence Howard, the movie still seems to take place on planet Earth, with characters we can clearly identify as human. Plus, as occasionally soap opera-y as it can get, it's never, ever boring (although this is somewhat tested by its grueling 122-minute run time). This movie literally has it all, including someone smashing an iPhone, another person smashing an iPad, cancer, miscarriage, sex-for-cash, Terrence Howard in a Santa suit, a funeral, a birth, dudes referring to blowjobs as "headmasters" and a choreographed, fully costumed dance number set to New Edition's 1988 single "Can You Stand the Rain," a moment that, while clearly rehearsed, is introduced into the narrative without any explanation or follow-through.
In some ways returning writer/director Malcolm Lee (Spike's cousin) is responding to the Perry industry, which sprung up in between the original movie and now. There's a greater emphasis on incredibly stodgy religion, something that Perry often leans on, and the kind of oversized theatrics that causes audiences to flock to any movie Perry's name is attached to. But "The Best Man Holiday" is edgier and more authentic, with more relatable characters and dialogue that earns its R-rating. (Lee stages the action better, as well, since Perry's films are often a compositionally incoherent blur.) The emotions might be similarly heightened, but you can actually understand what is happening and why. It might be overlong, overstuffed, and occasionally operatic, but that doesn't mean that it can wring the tears out of you. Also, there's a scene where Terrence Howard takes a photo of his penis and sends it to someone. [C+]