Opened: March 14, 1997 | Rated: R
What if the cast of "Friends" was black, and instead of wise-cracking in a coffee house they instead hung out in a subterranean beat poet bar, waxing philosophic about the elusiveness of love?
Then you'd have "love jones," an urban romance from first-time writer-director Theodore Witcher that tries so hard to show a different side of the black experience that it neglects the heart of its story.
Starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long as two on again, off again lovers, "love jones" takes place among the intellectuals of Chicago's black arts community. It's a welcome effort to up the IQ quotient of films aimed at an African American audience, but Witcher gets so wrapped up in waxing profound with dime-store philosophy that the romantic story's centerpiece becomes mechanical.
Tate ("Menace 2 Society") and Long ("Friday") could be an appealing screen couple, but their rocky courtship follows that most trite formula of modern movie romance: It's about a guy who cheats and plays off his feelings and the girl who takes him back even though he hasn't changed a bit.
Tate is Darius, a poet and struggling novelist who doesn't appear to have a day job. He meets Nina, a photographer who also seems to have days off, at a poetry bar and they proceed to sort of fall in love while trying hard to play it cool.
Confiding in their circle of friends (Isaiah Washington, Bill Bellamy, Lisa Nicole Carson and assorted others), they betray the assembly line script-writing as they relay their first night together.
"I can't even describe it," says Nina. "It defies description," says Darius. This from folks who night after night read and write poetry?
The story takes us on a well-traveled road that includes such familiar stops as the "Where Is This Going?" talk, the Break Up and Take Other Dates To Your Old Haunts passage, and the Guy Begging To Get Her Back While Disguising His Groveling As a Grand Romantic Gesture scene.
The major conflict comes when Nina's ex invites her to visit him in New York and try to patch things up. Nina goes, Darius takes it personally and starts sleeping with an anonymous girl who has no speaking lines. Nina returns having decided her ex should stay her ex, sees Darius with the nobody girl and begins dating one of his friends. We've seen it all before.
It doesn't help that the chemistry between the two leads is quite flat. Darius and Nina never take each other seriously, so why should we? Even when they talk about their future, their relationship, he's constantly trying to be slick, while she tries to be Teflon.
But we know it must be love because the sex scenes are shot in slow motion.
"love jones" will probably do business, so this probably won't be the last time we hear from Witcher. He has definite potential as a filmmaker and his sophomore effort will doubtless be more polished, but John Singleton he ain't.
His love story is forced, as are his attempts to tie his bohemian characters in their black urban roots. Witcher felt obligated to explore some kind of race issue and thus inserts a hollow scene of Darius, in his upscale apartment, arguing with a delivery company on the phone about bringing a package to his "black neighborhood."
It is the most obvious example how "love jones" is held back by it's many contrived elements.