The two stars of The Next Best Thing – Rupert Everett and Madonna – illustrate the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. The duo play Robert, a gay landscape designer, and Abbie, a yoga instructor with perpetual man problems. They are best friends who inadvertently become parents after a drunken one-night encounter, and decide to establish an unconventional family unit.
Madonna possesses incredible charisma: She’s a chameleon who can captivate the camera, but is hopelessly wooden as an actress. Her primary focus as a performer is control, and that seems to be the problem whenever she tries to convincingly portray a character she didn’t create (the exception being the made-to-order Evita, an extended music video where Madonna embodied the ultimate control freak). She can never fully let her guard down, and Abbie’s vulnerability is never believable except, ironically, when she’s talking to herself in the mirror.
Rupert Everett is the opposite, a pretty boy who’s finally reached the point in his career where he’s no longer skating along on his looks. Here, Everett has added several layers of depth to the type of role he inhabited so charmingly in My Best Friend’s Wedding. But this stereotypical gay sidekick turns out to be the movie’s real heart, particularly when it becomes apparent that Robert and Abbie haven’t had a child so much as hatched a new best friend. Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) becomes the guiding force of Robert’s life, and his reaction to Abbie’s fiance (Benjamin Bratt) is appropriately territorial.
The openly gay director John Schlesinger has tackled some complex gender issues before (Midnight Cowboy and Sunday, Bloody Sunday), but he’s fighting an uphill battle with Thomas Ropelewski’s bland, pandering script, which includes a third-act plot twist that negates the very issues central to the film.
It’s then that Rupert Everett really displays his strengths, giving Robert’s impassioned plea for fatherhood the emotional resonance that’s nearly absent from the rest of The Next Best Thing.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].