The Next Best Thing

2000, PG-13, 107 min. Directed by John Schlesinger. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Illeana Douglas, Lynn Redgrave, Josef Sommer, Michael Vartin, Benjamin Bratt, Rupert Everett, Madonna.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Sat., March 4, 2000

I'll say this for The Next Best Thing: there's certainly more to it than the ad campaign would lead you to believe. Schlesinger, whose lengthy career has given us some of the most inspired and powerful films ever made, from Midnight Cowboy to Marathon Man, proves more than up to the task of helming this distinctly modern tale of love, friendship, and American family mores. It says much about the director that he manages to keep a busy script (by Thomas Ropelewski) afloat as long as he does. By the time the whole nervy house of cards comes crashing down in the third act, you're more than a little inclined to cut the fellow some slack. Up to the point where the film suddenly takes an enthusiastic hairpin turn into some sort of neo-Kramer vs. Kramer pabulum, it's been both a wise and hilarious ride. Why the sudden need for third-act histrionics and a shocking brick-wall denouement is anyone's guess, but at least Schlesinger, who frankly hasn't done anything this interesting since 1990's Pacific Heights, keeps the ball rolling that long. Madonna, whose longtime Minneapolis-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent continues to grow steadily more grating as her career progresses, plays Abbie, a Los Angeles yoga instructor who feels her biological clock ticking away like the bells of St. Mary's. Awash in a sea of self-pity after her caddish record-exec boyfriend Kevin (Vartan) gives her the heave-ho, citing the dreaded “fear of commitment,” she turns to best friend and dashing gay gardener-about-town Robert (Everett, adding another notch to his already somewhat over-extended Gay Best Friend belt), who's also mourning the death of a relationship, this one from the decidedly more serious specter of AIDS. Together they engage in a night of drunken mutual consolation which, to make a rather lengthy story short, results in Abbie's pregnancy. From here on out the film tackles the difficulties faced by a pair of unmarried, sexually incompatible people as they struggle to raise their child (a precocious and engaging Malcolm Stumpf) in a household that's unconventional even by California standards. When Abbie is encouraged by Robert to begin dating again, she stumbles upon true love in the form of Law & Order's Bratt, which complicates matters further. Working from Ropelewski's imaginative and forthright script, Schlesinger probes everything from AIDS to gay parenting to single motherhood -- hot-button topics, all -- and manages to keep his tone engagingly light throughout. It's not until the final 30 minutes or so that the story goes into the dustbin, but when it does, it certainly doesn't look back. Everett and Madonna have a rapport here that adds much to the film's genial tone, and Redgrave, as Robert's dotty, socialite mother, is priceless. If only someone had taken away that disastrous third act we'd have one of the better (and really, one of the only) mainstream films dealing with the impossible societal demands put upon gay parenting yet made. No such luck, though.

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The Next Best Thing, John Schlesinger, Neil Patrick Harris, Illeana Douglas, Lynn Redgrave, Josef Sommer, Michael Vartin, Benjamin Bratt, Rupert Everett, Madonna

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