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Waiting for a Good Movie? Don't Hold Your Breath

Waiting to Exhale directed by Forest Whitaker starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon Now showing at Sony Fresh Pond

By Marian Hennessy-fiske

The much hyped movie, "Waiting to Exhale" is based on the best-selling, and better written, novel by Terry McMillan. The movie's central characters are four black women trying to eke out a living for themselves in Scottsdale, Arizona: Savannah (Whitney Houston), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), Gloria(Loretta Devine) and Robin (Lela Rochon). Also featured are big-screen talents Wesley Snipes, who plays Bernadine's post-marital love interest, and Gregory Hines, who plays Marvin, Gloria's last chance at romance.

Although the movie is purported to be a cross between "Steel Magnolias" and "The Women of Brewster Place," it comes closer to an African-American version of "thirtysomething" with the main message glaringly obvious: "Every woman needs a man."

So preaches Savannah's mother, and this seems to be the moral each woman learns from the crises that befall her in the course of the movie. From Robin forlornly talking to her dog about her good-for-nothing boyfriend Russell, (played as brilliantly as you would expect by the statue-actor from Madonna's "Like A Prayer" video) to Bernadine getting dumped by her husband for his white secretary, the movie serves as a warning to black women everywhere that "Good men are hard to find."

While the movie encourages women to defend their dignity and fight to retain a sense of self, the goal of such self-improvement is to catch a better man. Gloria eventually gains confidence and a positive self image, and Bernadine learns to believe in love, but they are taught these powerful lessons by men they barely know.

With every male character a two-dimensional action figure complete with well worn label of "Horrible Hubby," "Sassy Son," or "Belligerent Boyfriend" it's no wonder the movie seems a bit empty. The most personable male present is Gloria's gay hairdresser, who's a good listener, expressive and excellent at relating to all the women. This is just as tired a stereotype.

While the material the actors have to work with is lacking, so are most performances. "I closed my eyes," says Whitney Houston's character, Savannah, "And I exhaled." But Houston's performance lacks destination, so this epiphanic experience doesn't ring true. Houston has some good songs on the soundtrack, but after her wretched performance in "The Bodyguard," it's surprising to see her in a leading role again. She simply doesn't have the depth to sustain a performance any longer than a music video.

Where Whitney didn't deliver, Bassett was astounding. Back from "What's Love Got To Do With It" and as pissed as ever, she had the audience shouting along with her as she threw her adulterous husband out of her house and proceeded to burn all his belongings, including his Mercedes. "I'm tired," she screams, baring those buff biceps, "of being a background to your foreground."

A love scene between her and Wesley Snipes could have energized this clunker, but his semi-platonic cameo made him seem more like a guest star on a sitcom than a leading man. What on earth is the point of getting the girl if you don't even kiss her?

Good direction might have saved this movie, but director Forest Whittaker, best known for his role in, "The Crying Game," falls short in his struggle to deliver a instant classic.

One reason for the widespread acclaim McMillan's book received was the depth of her characters and the web of personal relations that logically develop amongst them during the course of the novel. Whittaker skips over character development in favor of fancy establishing shots and slick symbolic poses that leave most people feeling as though they just missed something.

Presentation of the setting was also questionable. The movie is set in Scottsdale Arizona, but it might as well be the moon for its resemblance to typical American life: luminous sunsets, clean safe streets, fancy modern flats or mansions for each character. Either Whittaker's on some secret publicity campaign for Arizona, or else the world's newest utopia is right under our noses--unlikely in that enlightened Arizona refused to celebrate Martin Luther King Day just a few years ago.

To be fair, perhaps no movie could live up to all the expectations surrounding "Waiting to Exhale." But the movie fails to meet almost every goal it attempts. As an accurate representation of middle class lifestyles, it glamorizes. As a representation of black men, it stereotypes. As a provider of role models for independent black women, it distorts, by providing a handful of economically independent but emotionally male-dependent women.

This last message is perhaps the most troubling, especially in light of the "backlash" described by Susan Faludi '81: the promotion of essentially sexist stories under a thin veneer of feminism. Rather than a cause for celebration, "Waiting to Exhale" sends mixed messages which should be cause for alarm.

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