High and Low

Madonna's stardom elevates The Next Best Thing, while What Planet Are You From? remains earthbound

Few actors have had the opportunity to perform their own lives so consistently as Madonna, who has made an art out of snagging film roles that mirror her passing interests and fashion fancies. Her belly button-baring East Village urchin in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) was a doppelgänger for the MTV Madonna who bopped her way through "Lucky Star" and "Borderline," and while Truth or Dare doesn't really qualify for this unscientific analysis since it was supposed to be a "documentary" (uh-huh), the duds Dick Tracy and Shanghai Surprise did allow the Material Girl to share the screen with erstwhile beaus Sean and Warren. And then there's Evita, a classic reflection of Madonna's latina-wannabe wanderlust (especially since she never got to play Frida Kahlo), and the beginning of her bid for queen diva.

Now that the icon has acquired a new "English" accent, given birth to a baby named Lourdes, and started studying the kabala, it's no wonder that Madonna's latest incarnation in The Next Big Thing is as a yoga-teaching earth mother. To be honest, this pattern is getting distracting. Sure, Madonna can do a lotus pose with the best of them, but even a fan can't help but lose sight of her believability as Abbie, a lovelorn Californian who senses the final ticks on her biological clock when she starts leading yoga classes and noshing on tofu. To make matters even trickier, her onscreen buddy Robert is played by her offscreen buddy Rupert Everett. (Whatever happened to Rosie and Sandra?) We won't go into the cameo appearance by Everett's labrador Mo.

So reality isn't exactly suspended in The Next Best Thing--but surprisingly, that turns out to be its greatest strength. Director John Schlesinger is an old pro at crafting edgier-than-average Hollywood fare (he made Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man), and the script by Thomas Ropelewski is much more than a light tale about a gay man and a straight woman's attempt to raise a child (conceived during a night when sexual orientation fell prey to too many martinis). In fact, once it hits stride, the film has something important to say about prejudices experienced by gay and lesbian parents, and about the many ways a misguided parent and the law can combine to deprive a child of the most meaningful people in his life.

But before the moral lessons kick in, The Next Best Thing meanders a bit through the protagonists' cutesy friendship, a graveside rendition of Don McLean's "American Pie," and plenty of sweaty power yoga. Things pick up once Abbie announces her pregnancy to Robert and the two set up house, leaving explanations about their relationship for a later time. Years pass and their strapping son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) grows into a precocious five-year-old who--yes--loves yoga and reading books upside-down with his daddy. Complications arise, however, when the hunky (and straight) Ben (Benjamin Bratt) offers Abbie a marriage proposal.

Thankfully, the performances become more intimate as the film turns dramatic. When Robert's role as father is challenged, Everett evokes such love-driven determination that it's impossible not to rally in defense of his character's predicament. In turn, Madonna convincingly transforms Abbie from an airhead into a calculating adult, adding a few twists along the way. But what's best about The Next Best Thing is its laid-back treatment of "nontraditional" families, to the degree that it almost seems to pave the way toward antiquating the adjective.

Far less successful is director Mike Nichols's silly intergalactic comedy What Planet Are You From? Madcap situations involving baffled space aliens trying to fit in on Earth are pretty common these days, so any fresh take on the extraterrestrial formula is welcome indeed. But the promising story of Harold (Garry Shandling), an alien sent to our fair planet to impregnate a woman as part of a plan for interplanetary invasion, quickly dissolves into a close encounter of the worst kind, as joke after joke relies on how funny his surgically attached mechanical penis sounds as it whirs into action.

Shandling's bumbling E.T. quickly discovers that earth girls aren't easy after all, but he manages to find love, marriage, and even fatherhood with a recovering party girl played by Annette Bening as a simpering refugee from a Nora Ephron movie. A subplot involving John Goodman as Shandling's own Fox Mulder holds more laughs, but in the end this movie disappoints mostly because its cast members (including Greg Kinnear, Linda Fiorentino, and Ben Kingsley) have to mug their way through a black hole of a script. Better to spend a half-hour on Third Rock from the Sun than 90 minutes with this.

 

The Next Best Thing andWhat Planet Are You From? are playing at area theaters.

 
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