Forget the generic title and the opening sequence that looks like a Massengill ad. Something New has a lot more to offer than the usual chick flicks churned out by Hollywood's lily-white starlet machine. This handsomely shot first feature from former Mariah Carey music-video director Sanaa Hamri has the look and feel of a conventional Hollywood romantic comedy, but by refusing to ignore the issue of race it has the soul of an indie movie. In a genre where pop-song sing-alongs, Sandra Bullock and fart jokes have become the norm, this movie dares to be contemplative and low-key. It may not always work, but as a sunny, sexy, impeccably acted romance, Something New beats anything that's out there.
The plot's as old as time: Workaholic professional woman seeks non-flaky, non-bisexual husband material, or in this case, what she calls her "IBM" (Ideal Black Male). Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a Los Angeles tax attorney who's worked long, hard hours to gain the respect of her firm. Her family (including little brother Donald Faison and headstrong mom Alfre Woodard) expects her to settle down with an upwardly mobile IBM. After being set up on a disastrous blind date with the very hunky and very Caucasian landscape architect Brian (Simon Baker), Kenya keeps bumping into the guy, and eventually succumbs to his laid-back, open-shirt outdoorsman charm. Like a black version of Sex in the City, her gaggle of urban professional girlfriends see Brian as a delectable stud good for a casual fling. "Can he bone?" they demand. But once Kenya loosens up and takes out her weave at Brian's request she starts doubting her own sense of identity, and it seems the path to peace, love and a bridal registry isn't as clear as it might seem.
Most interracial-romance movies focus on the impact these relationships have on the people around them, as in Jungle Fever or the dusty old morality tale Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But Something New keeps the focus on our heroine, and her own conflict between finding someone who's like her and finding someone she actually likes. When Kenya and Brian fight over whether or not the world is as color-blind as he seems to think it is, their differences truly seem like they're too much for one relationship to bear. Inserting documentary-style shots of a vibrant South Central into the mix, Hamri makes sure that viewers don't forget that all the blissfully romantic goings-on are happening in a very real place, and not some fantasyland.
Something New isn't as good as it could be. The editing is a little choppy, and parts of the film fall flat, like a sitcom that's had its laugh track removed. And as with any rom-com, the situations that keep our lovers apart in the last act are more than a little contrived. But the performers transform the material; Lathan proves again that she's one of the most underrated young actresses working in Hollywood. Though she's asked to be a little more uptight than any human could possibly be not only is she anal-retentive, but she's a dog-hater to boot Lathan makes sure that every one of Kenya's neuroses comes from a real place, and she's never so brittle as to be unlikable. Baker adds some depth and imperfections to what's essentially a standard knight-in-shining-armor romantic hero. And the supporting cast is littered with memorable turns from Faison, the hilariously straight-laced Woodard and the ubiquitous Mike Epps, who adds yet another bitingly funny supporting character to his résumé. Any movie that can convincingly coax a heartfelt speech on tolerance from a comic as riotously cynical as Epps is certainly worthwhile.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.