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The Next Best Thing

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 3 March 2000

Directed by John Schlesinger.

Starring Madonna, 
Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt, 
Neil Patrick Harris, Josef Sommer 
and Lynn Redgrave.

  Written by Thomas Ropelewski. 

When it's not adulating over Rupert Everett's musculature or serving as a commercial for Madonna's recently-discovered Hindu mysticism, The Next Best Thing is merely awful and monstrously self-absorbed.

Everett and Madonna play Robert and Abbie, who get drunk one night and -- whoops! -- conceive a child. Since Abbie is single and decides to have it, and Robert is gay, they platonically move in under one roof to raise the new baby together. Six years pass in the blink of an eye, and the baby has grown into the form of happy, healthy, sunny Sam. The movie provides no explanation as to what kind of dynamics the two adults used to bring him up and prepare him for the outside world, nor how they would address whatever questions or concerns would arise in his burgeoning young mind.

Robert is allowed to have one relationship in the story, which is over before it even gets started because, he says, he has to think about his son first and foremost all the time. (Meaning he has to live a sexless existence?) Abbie, on the other hand, receives much, much more screen time for her growing relationship with a New York financier (Benjamin Bratt), and in no time at all she's slapping Robert with a suit to gain sole custody of "her" son.

There's an infuriating plot twist thrown in towards the end that is supposed to make things more uncomplicated for the characters, but instead neuters this would-be daring and unconventional drama even more than it already is. The only reason young Sam is in the picture is so that he can be an object for the two leads to either fawn, or fight, over. The director John Schlesinger seems to have simply stepped away from the lead actors, allowing these two beautiful creatures to come together on-screen. When the camera isn't mesmerized by his body, Rupert Everett gives it a good try in one or two scenes, but he can't seem to figure out how to play a character that basically doesn't make any sense. Madonna returns to the frozen attitudinizing that made Body of Evidence such an agony to sit through. Her face enshrined by long, curling strands of hair, she is serene, poised, and monotonous, to the point that all her line readings begin to sound the same after a while.

Terrified of intimidating a wide audience, the movie doesn't even say out loud that one character dies of AIDS.-related causes, or that another is HIV- positive. (The Don McLean song American Pie was chosen for Madonna to record because it was deemed more "upbeat" than the original choice, Patti Smith's Easter.) In which case, why did they bother to make a movie about these characters and this situation in the first place?

John Schlesinger should be doubly ashamed because, long, long time ago, he made a now-classic film about relationships that cross conventional boundaries, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which has all the complexity, sophistication and smarts that this film lacks. But Schlesinger has become notorious for doing his best work in the U.K. (Cold Comfort Farm, The Innocent, and two TV. films, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, based on the Burgess-Maclean case), while saving his flabby, contemptuous work for American-made films. He has recently acquired the film rights to Larry Kramer's play, The Normal Heart, and has announced that he would like to make a film version of it. We can only hope that it will be a more adventurous and honorable effort than this. 

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