THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY Review

Walking into The Best Man Holiday I was willing, but had no prior knowledge of what these characters had been through and what this feature might contain. I knew in the back of my mind I'd seen bits and pieces of director Malcom D. Lee's 1999 debut feature over the past fourteen years, but never had I sat down to take it all in. That being said, the first few minutes of this belated sequel gives a slight catch up on the main characteristics of the ensemble cast before setting us back down into their day to day lives to play a little catch up with each before reuniting the gang for a holiday celebration. Having not seen the original I'll admit I was hesitant to jump into the sequel, but was anxious to see if expectation would be trounced and if the film would deliver a distracting two-hour experience that would get me ready for the Christmas season. Much to my surprise I was rather taken with the film and wrapped up in the going-ons of each individual character or couple and the problems they were facing given I hadn't been waiting to see how things turned out for them for nearly fifteen years. I knew going into the film that the true test of whether the film moved me would be if I immediately wanted to go home and watch The Best Man. It would be rather pretentious of me to hold out and not say what the outcome of this desire was, so I'll tell you now I've already searched through a few local places and online to see if I can locate the film on DVD. There is a distinct welcoming tone that pulls you in and holds your interest while setting up all the oncoming conflicts that weigh down the second half of the film and deliver blow after blow to your emotional sensory. Still, when all is said and done this is a film meant to serve the purpose of reminding its audience how important family members and memories are and the seasonal backdrop only re-enforces a certain sense of nostalgia that makes the effect of the film all the more powerful, especially for those that identified with and have felt close to the characters they were originally introduced to over a decade ago. As someone who had no particular expectation or anticipation for the film, The Best Man Holiday is one of those films that would easily escape a Caucasian male when walking into a movie theater, but there is plenty to relate to here because despite me not being in the target demographic, many of the situations and family dynamics are elements that are universal and are executed in a way where everyone feels welcome.

From left: Merch (Harold Perrineau), Harper (Taye Diggs), Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Q (Terrence Howard)
reunite for Christmas in The Best Man Holiday.
Picking up in real time 14-years after the wedding of Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun), Lance is getting ready to retire from pro football and he and Mia are celebrating Christmas this year by bringing all of their friends together for a couple of days of harmony, love and house-partying. Harper (Taye Diggs) serves as our main character who has seemingly matured from his young, fresh out of college-phase to a man more than ready to be a father. After the release of his first book, "Unfinished Business", and its success both commercially and critically he was able to secure a spot teaching at New York University, but has failed to produce another hit novel. He has recently been let go from his professor position though and has failed to inform his wife, Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), of this news. Robyn is expecting their first child on New Years Eve after several attempts, but the good news is the two have seemed to prosper in their relationship. The same might not be said for neither Quentin (Terrence Howard) or Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) as both are more interested in making money and having sex more than they are anything else. Quentin or "Q" is a successful PR guy to the stars while Shelby has become a hit on one of the many "Housewives" reality shows that plague premium cable. It's clear Shelby still has a thing for her former boyfriend Julian aka Merch (Harold Perrineau) though and this can only spell trouble. There is nothing rather appealing about either Q or Shelby, though Howard does score some of the biggest laughs in the film and is able to offer the only silver lining in terms of comedy through the films melodramatic final act(s). As for Julian he did actually move on from Shelby and married Candace (Regina Hall) though fans of the first film will always refer to her as Candy and the two of them have successfully ran a charter school for several years but have run into some trouble recently due to a video surfacing from Candy's stripper days. Then there is Jordan (Nia Long) who will always share a special bond with Harper, but was too consumed with her career and succeeding on her own terms that halted it from flourishing. She has reached her goal as a top network producer and is currently dating a successful white man, Brian (Eddie Cibrian), that naturally gives way to some entertaining conversation early on in the film.

While The Best Man Holiday is not an exceptional film it does what it is intended to do rather well and what makes this a pleasure to be a part of is simply the characters and the actors involved that make this feel all the more genuine and real than it probably had any right to be. More than simply showing that African-Americans can be upscale the film provides actual, complex people for these actors to play who are facing real world issues and the actors are all more than game to get back in the groove and under the skin of the characters that boosted most of their careers. Harper is difficult to figure out because we can see from the opening moments of the film as we catch up with him that he is stressed due to his current set of circumstances, but that the toll of what happened between he and Lance and he and Jordan in the first film never went away. We can see in Diggs' face that he feels he's simply been coasting for more of his life than he ever thought he would and is discouraged that he is unable to publish novels that may not be as mainstream as his first hit, but are works he feels passionate about. His agent (a one and done scene-stealing John Michael Higgins) lets him know bluntly he can't sell his latest manuscript and that he desperately needs something if he wants to be able to support his new child. Thus, the idea is born to write Lance's biography given the fact his retirement is upcoming which then allows the arc of the relationship between Lance and Harper to become the backbone of the entire film and Lee knows this is fitting as it is these two that are the glue between everyone else. As Lance, Chestnut is a stoic figure who never emotes much and is hard-pressed to let go of the past and welcome Harper back into his life. It is unclear if the two of them have had as much contact since the first film, but either way there is still a large amount of tension between them that asks Chestnut to keep everything restrained and harboured within which serves his character well and makes room for more of a gut-wrenching impact when he finally lets everything spill out near the end. The women in the cast are all solid and create a convincing chemistry between them that allow us to buy into the fact they've known each other for years. While Calhoun's Mia is the matriarchal figure over them all, Lathan does fine dramatic work as her character is required to deliver the most complex emotional journey. This melding of personalities and the natural humor and results of the choices each of them make all come together to form an affecting, character-driven film.

Mia (Monica Calhoun), Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and Jordan (Nia Long) cheer on the men in their talent show.
With all of that being said and praise going to the right places in the actors embodiment of Lee's well-written and well-directed characters, the trouble comes when Lee tries to force his narrative on his characters and allows it to go into countless directions that see every storyline for every character being resolved or tied up in some way. As the film reached what I assumed was its final scene and what would have been a poignant note for it to go out on while having the authority to allow the audience to decide what happened to some of the less-prominent characters the film instead goes on and on for a solid fifteen more minutes that felt unnecessary and forced, but more than anything they didn't match the natural rhythms the first hour of the film so effortlessly carried. While it is nice to get some clarification on things; I particularly enjoyed the cliffhanger and getting some closure for Jordan on what direction her life might ultimately take, but many of the other multiple endings could have just as easily been assumed or gone a different route that would have made little difference int he final verdict of how most movie-goers will feel about the film. Most are quick to compare any films with all black principle casts to something akin to a Tyler Perry production, but The Best Man Holiday (and its predecessor no doubt shares these qualities) is much smarter, funnier, and fresh than anything Perry can now concoct, but it still has the big family crisis at the heart of it and a faith element that juggles the balance of religion and reality with a fair hand. That the crisis serves as the crux (and reasoning) for the film is presented in a way that is much more subtle and reserved than the flaunting, self-serving ways that some would have taken allow for the film to radiate a humble rather than manufactured glow. It takes a a heavy toll on you by the time the credits do begin to roll though and it hits you over the head with the themes of love and family to the point it becomes redundant and you begin to wonder how Lee thinks of his audience, but when he is at his best he is writing dialogue for each of the characters. As it is now likely inevitable we will get a third Best Man film I hope he chooses to go that route and simply let the characters breathe rather than using them as pawns to preach.