How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Cast: Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King, Suzzanne Douglas, Michael J. Pagan, Glynn Turman. Screenplay: Terry McMillan and Ronald Bass (based on the novel by Terry McMillan).

Even more featherweight than Six Days, Seven Nights, the summer of 1998's other high-profile romp in the tropics, How Stella Got Her Groove Back is also more disappointing, because it doesn't seem to understand its virtues or to know its own limitations. The makers of the Ford-Heche picture knew they just had to throw a bunch of buttery light on to pretty beaches and pretty people, and everything would be fine; even if a few too many pirates showed up in that bizarre middle portion, Six Days was an unremarkable picture (obviously!) but a smooth enough flight. How Stella Got Her Groove Back, by contrast, tries to say something, and even though I do not question its sincerity—co-screenwriter and author of the original novel Terry McMillan definitely wants 40+ women to have their sexual options open—the look, music, and essential aimlessness of Kevin Rodney Sullivan's direction make clear that Stella is nothing if not a travel agent's dream ad for sunny Jamaica.

Angela Bassett is starting to find herself in that Joan Allen predicament: nobody doubts that she is a fabulous actress, astoundingly strong even when her material is meager, but it may be high time for both of these ladies to start picking better projects. Stella is a single mother who has just lost her job and has no man, which apparently constitutes a "lost groove" to those pitiful souls who are stuck looking like Angela "Biceps" Bassett when they're over 40 and have enough money even as unemployed single mothers to hop back and forth to a Caribbean bungalow (with an extra hop to New York City, though it's not about pleasure) several times within a year or two. Here's where McMillan's urge to make a plea on behalf of middle-aged women, particularly black middle-aged women, seems a little foolhardy, since the intended beneficiaries of her good will are unlikely to identify with a buffed-up, bejeweled screen goddess. A movie in which Eleanor Holmes Norton hooks up with a Playgirl-ready hunk o' love would be another matter entirely, you dig? Which brings up Taye Diggs, the muscular, jocular boy toy who has a hankering for Bassett, but only looks about five years younger than her—certainly not more than 10, and the script wants us to believe she is literally twice his age.

The relationship between these two never feels as challenged or obstacle-written as the dialogue keeps insisting, though in a bizarre twist, those moments where the characters do feel able to get over it and shag in peace spring from circumstances that are not persuasive or convincing as events that might bring a difficult match to fruition. Whoopi Goldberg brings some trademark pizzazz to her role as Stella's friend Delilah (love all these names), but then the script just decides it's finished with her; Victor Garber, whom we last saw married to Goldberg in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella and sinking on the Titanic, has absolutely ZERO to do as Stella's boss, who decides he wants her back not too long after letting her go. It's also the kind of movie where a successful, crisply efficient businesswoman pines for the days when she dreamed of making her own furniture-building studio, but when her new love wins Big Points for building her one, the music swells, the actors get teary—and then we never see Bassett so much as hammer a leg into a chair. What's up?

There is nothing really objectionable about How Stella Goet Her Groove Back so long as it's providing the kind of party we expected: a sunny mirage of beautiful people making goo-goo eyes against cloudless and palm-treed vistas. I just don't understand why the movie doesn't have the sense to ride that unambitious but foolproof wave, and why it seems overwhelmed by the simple acts of throwing a roadblock in the way of romance and believably moving it out again. This isn't rocket science, folks, and if you're going to hire Bassett and Goldberg, you need to give them more scenes like some casual grace-notes at the beginning when Stella and Delilah are just lounging around the hotel shooting the breeze. In the meantime, How Stella Got Her Groove Back falls short of the easiest of goals, and Bassett proves again that she can be suckered into some pretty lame roles and pictures without much hesitation. Please God tell me that movies like this don't mean that no one in Hollywood has the sense to offer this shockingly bright talent anything better to play.

The NAACP Image Awards recently bent over backwards to celebrate this picture and its star at the expense of a genuinely moving and strikingly executed motion picture, some little ditty called Beloved. The outcome of this voting not only bumps the Image trophy a couple notches below the annual Blockbuster citations, it mistakes the intent of a project and the size of the gap it fills for actual or attention-worthy quality. I, too, would like to see more escapist, middle-brow entertainment made for and about Black characters and audiences, but not if they're as thin and dizzy as this one is. When Angela Bassett gets another role like Tina Turner, or even some more blazingly fierce ass-kicking like she got to do in Strange Days—then, my friend, that will be one groove I will rejoice to see gotten back. C–


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