By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Nearly everything about Just Wright is just wrong.
Cramming the outlines of three mediocre movies into a single lousy one is the first mistake deserving attention — and scorn.
At times, Just Wright is a standard romantic comedy about an unlikely candidate for love (Queen Latifah, coasting) finding a soulmate. Then it isn't.
Sometimes this is a cliched basketball flick, with an ill-timed injury and transparently staged games so the hero (rapper Common, an appropriate name) can appear to have skills. Then it isn't.
For a brief time — yet still too long — Just Wright rummages through the dirty lingerie of aspiring NBA trophy wives, pursuing athletes for the same reason others chase college degrees. Then it doesn't.
Yet throughout the movie's 105 minute running time (of which the final 20 are useless), you keep hoping director Sanaa Hamri will realize she's making an entire movie of subplots and cleverly tie them together. But she won't.
Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a physical therapist and New York Nets fan with a heart of gold and a Ford Mustang of rusty dents. So much attention is paid to the car that we know the vehicle is vital to the happy ending. Leslie lives in the shadow of her lovelier, golddigger cousin Morgan (Paula Patton), whose sole life goal is marrying a rich jock like Nets star Scott McKnight (Common).
As fate and a lazy screenwriter would have it, Leslie and Scott meet while pumping gas. The muscular guy takes a shine to the hefty girl, seeing beneath the surface to the beauty within. Then he meets Morgan and that fairy tale goes out the window.
So does Latifah for a while, and the movie is actually a bit better for it. Patton makes an amusing diva, and Morgan's rapid engagement to Scott opens another narrative path Hamri won't follow for long. She'll shove herself out of the door when Scott suffers a knee injury that could sideline him for the playoffs.
That situation brings back Leslie since, hey, she's a physical therapist. I'll admit a shortage of NBA knowledge but I'm positive that a team with millions of dollars invested in an all-star player wouldn't allow him to heal on his own, with a veritable rehab rookie like Leslie working on him. Then the whole subplot cycle cranks up again, yanking viewers through situations we thought were already settled.
Latifah has too much personality for this drivel and Common doesn't have enough. Part of the reason is Hamri's avoidance of anything that smacks of the rapper's inner-city comfort zone, despite the NBA angle. Common wears a tuxedo with the wan confidence of a wedding ring bearer, fakes playing stodgy pop standards on piano, and generally whitewashes any charisma he may actually possess.
The Mustang does end up tricked out cool, though.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.