Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Next Best Thing (2000)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures - He was smart, handsome and single. When her biological clock was running out, he was... the next best thing.

The sparks fly and laughs follow when Rupert Everett and Madonna team up for this irresistibly funny and heartwarming movie directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy).

Abbie (Madonna) and her friend Robert (Rupert Everett) would make the perfect couple – except for one small complication: He’s gay. We’ll, at least they don’t have to worry about sex messing up their relationship. Or do they? One night, loneliness gets the best of them, and before one can scream “reality check,” Abbie and Robert become lovers and, ultimately, parents. But when Abbie meets her dream man (Benjamin Bratt) Abbie and Robert’s unconventional family is put to the test. Can best friends form the best of families, especially when one is gay? The answer emerges with wit, warmth, and a bundle of wonderful surprises in the The Next Best Thing.

Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Rupert Everett, Madonna, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Vartan, Josef Sommer, Lynn Redgrave, Illeana Douglas, Neil Patrick Harris, Malcolm Stumpf
Box Office: Budget: $25 million. Opening Weekend: $5.87 million. Gross: $14.983 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 22 chapters; rated PG-13; 107 min.; $29.98; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Madonna "American Pie" music video; 14-minute featurette "Reflections on The Next Best Thing"; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Madonna, Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/B/C+

Perhaps one of the best indicators of Madonna's continued success as a recording artist comes from the fact studios still offer her starring roles in movies. For all of her fame as a singer, she's never been able to break though and have anyone take her seriously as an actress, and most of her films have been flops. Yet she continues to maintain a fairly high profile in movies.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that Maddy seems to do best when she works as a supporting player. Her work in Desperately Seeking Susan was some of her most acclaimed, and I still think that A League of Their Own showed off her talents to great effect. She also held her own in Dick Tracy, though she seemed a little weak in that film. In any case, all of these movies used her in non-lead roles; maybe she needs to do a few more in that vein.

Unfortunately, Maddy continues to push for large parts that suit a star of her stature, even if her fame comes from a different area. The Next Best Thing, a romantic comedy with a twist. Maddy plays unlucky-in-love middle-aged yoga teacher Abbie who hangs out with her gay best friend, landscaper Robert (Rupert Everett). A drunken evening lands the two in the sack, and the result is a son.

Once little Sam pops out, the movie jumps ahead about six years to modern day (the preceding events took place in 1992/1993). The unusual threesome have created an atypical but warm and loving family for Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) and all seems well, except for the fact that Abbie and Robert still feel unsatisfied in their romantic endeavors. That changes when Abbie meets Ben (Benjamin Bratt), a handsome investment banker who quickly sweeps her off her feet and endangers the happy trio.

TNBT is glorified TV movie fare and presents a pretty sappy and weepy affair as a whole. How did director John Schlesinger fall from the heights of Marathon Man and Midnight Cowboy to have to deal with this tripe? I don't know, but I feel for the guy; he must have cheesed off the wrong person to get stuck with such a dull and dreary piece of overwrought theatrics.

No one wants to see Madonna succeed in movies more than I do; my affection for her goes a long way, and I'd love to see her conquer the nay-sayers. Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to happen; if her work here is any evidence, the woman really can't act. Throughout the film, she seems awfully dour and somber; she appears quite stiff and actually looks like she's about to flinch half the time.

I think her real-life personality affects her work, really. Obviously, I don't know Madonna and couldn't honestly say how she acts on her own, but through all of the interview clips I've seen with her in recent years, it's clear she's lost a lot of the spark and verve that made her so much fun. The Maddy of Frozen was much more self-serious and somber than the daring gal of Erotica or Bedtime Stories, and that attitude comes through in her performance here. I don't think she could pull off a spunky and raunchy role like Mae in A League of Their Own anymore; for whatever reason, she seems to have lost a lot of the delightful edge she used to display.

It also doesn't help that Maddy has to play most of her scenes against a good actor like Everett. He stole the show in My Best Friend's Wedding and clearly displays a lot of talent. Unfortunately, it all goes to waste here, although he maintains enough charm to make Maddy look bad. Everett seems very natural and loose in front of the camera, and that just accentuates Maddy's awkwardness and stiffness. Although these two are apparently close in real life, the chemistry between them seems non-existent.

Add to these negatives some of the most irritating egotism since Streisand's last movie - we often hear characters mention how gorgeous Abbie is - and frequent use of odd "glamour lighting". If you've seen Addams Family Values, you'll recall the way that Morticia's eyes were always lit. Maddy gets almost the same treatment here; it's not quite as obvious and forced, but it sure looks weird, as the lighting almost never fits the situation. Actually, the sets are contorted so that the lighting seems almost logical in those surroundings, but it never works, and it stands out like a sore thumb. Granted, many of the other characters "benefit" from this effect, but I got the feeling this was done so that we wouldn't think it was all just for Maddy; we also hear a fair number of compliments about Everett's looks, but I similarly believe those were offered simply to balance the love-fest for our dear Ms. Ciccone.

Message to Madonna: loosen up, take a quirky and solid supporting role, and maybe we'll pay more attention to your acting career. Unfortunately, The Next Best Thing was pretty much The Absolute Worst Thing she could do to boost her status as a film star; it spotlights all of her faults and showcases none of her talents. Well, at least the soundtrack provided a couple of new songs.

The DVD:

The Next Best Thing appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, it presents a very attractive and strong picture.

Sharpness usually looks crisp and well-delineated, with only a few vaguely soft shots to intrude on the definition. Some of this seems related to the odd "glamour lighting" used on Madonna and the others, but not all of it comes in her scenes, so I can't put the blame on that. In any case, the softness appears exceedingly minor at its worst.

Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no problems, and I also noticed fewer artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion than usual. The print itself seemed completely free of scratches, nicks, speckles, grit and grain, just as one would expect from such a recent film.

Colors looked clear and accurate, with some very lovely hues on display; the picture mainly sticks to a realistic palette and it appears nicely reproduced. Black levels seem dense and dark, with no excessive heaviness, and shadow detail looked appropriately opaque but not too thick. All in all, TNBT offers a fine picture.

The movie's Dolby Digital 5.0 soundtrack seems less impressive, mainly due to a rather restricted soundfield. Much of the film sounds essentially monaural, with only fairly light effects emanating from the side speakers, though these pick up a bit during scenes like the one at the carnival, and some modest panning occurs as well. Music makes the best use of the other channels, as the songs present some good stereo separation and generally sound lively and clear. The surrounds kick in little information and give us general ambience at best. Since TNBT is a quiet dramedy, the soundfield's lack of ambition isn't really a problem, but I would have liked some additional activity during appropriate scenes such as parties, which come across as a bit drab.

Audio quality seems consistently pretty strong. Dialogue generally sounded natural and crisp; although a few lines appeared oddly muffled, intelligibility remained good. Effects were restrained due to the gentle nature of the production but they seemed accurate and lacked distortion. The music appeared warm and bright and also provided some fairly decent low end; though the bass didn't exactly rattle the walls, it sounded taut and clean. The soundtrack lost a few points for some infrequently flat audio and for a lack of ambition, but it suits the film in question relatively well.

The Next Best Thing includes a few supplemental features. Most significant for Maddy fans like myself is the "American Pie" music video. I cringed when I first heard she'd cover this song; I always thought Don McLean's original was one of the cheesiest pieces of junk I'd ever heard. However, Madonna brings it to life and makes it her own; the song works much better in her hands.

The clip shows Maddy lip-synching the song and dancing along with it, and these shots are interspersed with snippets of a wide variety of posed folks, I suppose in an attempt to show the diversity of Americans. (Sure do seem to be a lot of gay Americans, if this video is a representative sample!) It's a decent video but isn't especially memorable. Nonetheless, as a Maddy completist, I'm extremely happy to have it.

Next up is "Reflections on The Next Best Thing", a 14 and a half minute program that offers interview clips of Schlesinger, Madonna, Everett, and Bratt interspersed with scenes from the film. Yikes - what a dull piece! Essentially we hear a smidgen about how each of the four became involved with the project, and then it's just a load of happy talk about how great everyone was and how terrific the movie is. There's not much insight, depth or fun on display here; it's of interest only to folks who really liked the movie.

Finally, the DVD finishes with the film's theatrical trailer. It's not a great collection of extras, but at least it's something, and I'm pleased to get the music video, especially since it hadn't appeared on the pre-release announcements; when one considers how many DVDs promise features that they don't deliver - like Buzz Lightyear, and The Haunting has now done it twice! - it's great to find one with more than I expected, especially when it's something as desirable as a Madonna video. Because I am a die-hard Maddy fan, I'll keep my copy of The Next Best Thing, but that's only because I want to retain the music video. The film itself is a bland affair that smacks of something you'd see on the Lifetime network; it sure doesn't make for a credible theatrical film. The DVD provides excellent picture, good sound and a few decent supplements. Leave this one for the Madonna obsessives like myself; for others, it doesn't even merit a rental.

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