HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK
A lesson in short-term benefit vs. long-term detriment, courtesy of
screenwriters Ron Bass and Terry McMillan: in adapting McMillan's
novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the pair make a decision
which gives the first half of the film a real kick, then kicks the
second half into oblivion. The heroine of the title is Stella Payne
(Angela Basssett), a 40-year-old San Francisco investment banker with
a gorgeous house, an 11-year-old son (Michael J. Pagan), an ex-husband
and no man in her life. Itching for a change of pace while her son is
visiting his father, Stella calls up her New York-based best friend
Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) and suggests a week-long vacation in Jamaica.
Stella expects little more than an uncomplicated island holiday, but
instead finds complications galore when she falls for 20-year-old
Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs), and he in turn falls for her.
The significant change involves Stella's companion on her Jamaican
adventure. In McMillan's novel, Delilah does not join Stella on her
trip; in fact, Stella's life-long best friend is nearly two years dead.
Adding Delilah to the mix certainly adds some spice to the second-chance
romance story-line, particularly with Goldberg in the role. Sure,
Goldberg is doing little more than an extended funky-sassy Miss Thang
riff, but she's always fun to watch, timing her salacious or sarcastic
comments impeccably. Initially, it looks like a brilliant idea giving
the staid Stella a free-spirited foil. Instead of the novel's hyper-
introspective first person narrative, Stella on screen offers a bit more
interplay, and a bit more fun.
So much for the short-term benefit. The problem, as it turns out,
is that Delilah is phased out of the narrative fairly early on, leaving
an energy vacuum for Regina King (as Stella's hopelessly irresponsible
sister Vanessa) to fill with only moderate success. We're left with
Stella fussing and fretting over the age difference between her and
Winston, and we're left with a lot more questions regarding why Stella
does what she does. Delilah's absence in the novel becomes part of
Stella's loneliness, helping to explain both her initial attraction
to anyone who would fill the void and her doubts over how serious the
relationship could possibly be. As talented and forceful an actor as
Angela Bassett can be, she plays Stella with too much exuberant
confidence. Delilah's influence is pervasive as the relationship
blossoms; the bump-n-grind Stella we see in Jamaica appears to have far
too much groove still in her to need getting any of it back.
The combination of unfocused motivations and little comic relief proves
fatal in the film's final 45 minutes, when it becomes a genuine butt-numbing
ordeal. The story simply has nowhere left to go but around in circles:
there's some relationship talk, a bit of soft-focus sex, tense moments, and
more relationship talk, all of it surrounding a relationship with not
nearly enough chemistry to be involving. Newcomer Taye Diggs, doing a barely
serviceable Jamaican accent, has all the boyish charm the role needs with
about a tenth of the mature-beyond-his-years wisdom it demands. That leaves
a whole lot of grating will-they-or-won't-they vacillation over a pairing
that, on screen, doesn't make much sense regardless of age difference.
Bass and McMillan seemed to realize that the very internalized nature
of How Stella Got Her Groove Back required something different
to work as a film. The big change they made had it heading in the right
direction, but it only emphasized how truly un-cinematic the rest of
the story could be. Whoopi Goldberg may chew up the lovely island scenery,
but at least she presents something worth holding your attention for
an hour or so. She also makes the rest of the film look like it's about
a different kind of groove: the run-out groove.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 groove things:
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