Courtesy Photo
*** stars 103 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, July 16, 1999
Written & directed by Rick Famuyiwa

Starring Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, Richard T Jones, Sean Nelson, Trent Cameron, Duane Finley, Malinda Williams, De'Aundre Bonds, Sanaa Lathan, Lisaraye & Tamala Jones

Interview with writer-director Rick Famuyiwa


The kind of slice-of-life flick that plays great at home. I recommend it on video even more than in the theater.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 1/18/99

Omar Epps:
"The Mod Squad" (1999)

Taye Diggs:
"Go" (1999)
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998)

Richard T. Jones:
"Event Horizon" (1997)
"Kiss the Girls" (1997)
"The Trigger Effect" (1996)

De'Aundre Bonds:
"Get on the Bus" (1996)

Sanaa Lathan:
"Life" (1999)
"Blade" (1998)
"Romeo + Juliet" (1996)

Tamala Jones:
"Can't Hardly Wait" (1998)

'The Wood' a funny, if familiar, 'Wonder Years'-fashioned flashback film

By Rob Blackwelder

In its first five minutes "The Wood" looks like it's going to be a breaking-the-fourth-wall disaster, as Omar Epps ("The Mod Squad") narrates to camera, explaining to the audience that it's two hours and ticking until his best buddy's nuptials and the groom is AWOL.

Epps is not a good narrator -- at least at first. He looks like he missed a rehearsal and has been stuck reading cue cards.

But the day is saved with the entrance of Richard T. Jones ("Event Horizon"), as another groomsman who helps Epps find their cold-footed friend (Taye Diggs) and talk him back to the alter.

"Who the hell you talkin' to?" Jones asks, staring blankly down the camera lens, and the ice is broken. Epps and "The Wood" both slip into character for a funny, if familiar, urban "Wonder Years"-fashioned film of fond flashbacks and puberty cliches.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa from a script he penned while selling shoes at the Beverly Hills Niketown, "The Wood" is a semi-autobiographical remembrance of semi-suburban Inglewood (hence the title), Calif. in the '80s. It follows two tracks -- the junior high school backstory of these three friends and the race to get Diggs to the church on time -- both of which have ups and downs but come together in genuine portrayals of friendship and a lot of great laughs.

In the present, Epps and Jones discover Diggs ("How Stella Got Her Groove Back") passed out in his tuxedo on an understanding ex-girlfriend's couch and have to sober him up and get him thinking about whether or not he should be going through with this wedding if he's going to behave like this.

In the course of cleaning him up, they talk frankly (Diggs confronts his friends about the ruthless ribbing they gave him when he proposed) and facetiously about growing up together, leading to jumps in and out of the bulk of the movie, which takes place in the era of Guess? jackets and Jheri curls.

Very much a rookie effort -- with many shopworn, but proven, narrative techniques (the story is told from the new kid in school's POV, the pretty girl is introduced in hair-tossing slow motion) -- Famuyiwa may be inexperienced, but he understands subtlety (the '80 costumes are accurately ugly, but incidental) and he knows what makes audiences smile. His story taps into adolescent memories and wedding jitters common enough and comedic enough that even with its urban themes (it's being marketed as a "black movie"), the tale is universal.

Frequently "The Wood" falls back on pretty old material. In one scene the younger Epps (Sean Nelson from "Fresh") is asked to address the class while making a tent in his jeans. Another has him slow dancing at arm's length for the same reason. But the young writer-director has an eye for the fresh angle on these second hand goods. For example, he gets a big laugh by throwing matador music over a scene in which Nelson, on a dare, angles to grab a girl's ass in the schoolyard.

Later -- after an apology and a good whooping from her aspiring gang-banger brother -- that girl becomes his girlfriend, an on-again-off-again affection that carries through to the modern-day story. (The movie's funniest running gag is the way her brother becomes a pal an coaches Nelson on scoring with his sister.)

It doesn't hurt that Famuyiwa has found himself a superior cast -- even if the younger actors hardly resemble their 30-ish counterparts at all. In the present day story, Epps, Jones and especially the supernaturally handsome Diggs invite the audience into their neighborhood triad. You almost want to talk to the screen (depending on the audience, you just might) because you feel you know them so well. The young actors playing these guys in the '80s have a real knack for the nervousness and false bravado of their age, and are not afraid to look foolish for the sake of authenticity.

Although it might have been more polished in the hands of an experienced director, "The Wood" feels true to itself with Famuyiwa's small flaws where they stand.


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