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HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK

by: Scott Renshaw

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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