How Stella Got Her Groove Back

(USA 1998)
Rated R

Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs, Whoopi Goldberg, Regina King

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Writing credits: Terry McMillan

20th Century Fox * 124 minutes


I read Terry McMillan's cotton candy beach-read, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" last month while sitting on the patio of my hotel during my 9th trip to Negril, Jamaica -- a fitting location. I knew that the film was forthcoming, and I also knew that it would fit nicely into my "I'll Sit Through Anything Filmed in Jamaica" filmgoing philosophy.

I expected little beyond perhaps some fabulous shots of Jamaican beaches, and perhaps an entertaining story that turns this season of wheezing geezer/fabulous babe love affairs on its ear -- and I was not dis

STELLA... is the story of Stella Payne (Angela Basset), a 40-year-old divorced stockbroker with the World's Most Fabulous House and the World's Most Perfect Son, the latter of whom is promptly and conveniently dispatched on a plane to spend the first half of the film with his father. Seeing one of those heartbreakingly gorgeous Jamaica travel spots on TV, Stella decides to call her friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) and take an impromptu vacation to Jamaica. Delilah locates a pair of ex-football players who resemble some of the less savory males from McMillan's other novel-turned-movie WAITING TO EXHALE, but Stella turns her attention to the inhumanly beautiful and improbably named (except to anyone who's ever actually BEEN to Jamaica and seen the parade of Winstons, Trevors and Desmonds that populate the beaches) Winston Shakespeare, who also happens to be barely 20. They have a vacation fling that turns into something more, and the second half of the film deals with their attempt to build a relationship out of physical attraction.

The film looks great. SOUL FOOD, EVE'S BAYOU, and now HOW STELLA... are films that demonstrate Hollywood's criminal underutilization of the many great-looking and talented black actresses and actors who transcend the often mediocre material they are given. Angela Bassett looks wonderful, and is once again fierce, strong, and buff. In fact, her Stella is so strong that it's difficult to imagine her actually falling for even the limpid eyes of young Winston (newcomer Taye Diggs, who has little to do in this female fantasy role except look spectacular, at which he succeeds smashingly). What is there to say about Whoopi Goldberg except that she is again Whoopi, the wisecracking girlfriend, and until she departs the film in a miserably out-of-place plot contrivance, steals the picture from her more glamorous co-stars.

Also of note is Regina King (last seen as Cuba Gooding's wife in "Jerry Maguire"), who is hilarious as Stella's irresponsible, but supportive, younger sister. TITANIC fans will be happy to see Victor Garber, fresh off his Thomas Andrews portrayal and still sporting a touch of Irish brogue, who appears incongruously earnest and sincere as Stella's callous, self-serving boss.

While STELLA is not a "Jamaican" picture, I was disappointed that the film did not adequately convey the effects of the lush Jamaican scenery in fostering the kind of environment in which such a relationship can take hold. A scene in which Winston takes Stella to meet his parents (in which his automobile has a steering wheel on the left, rather than the right as it should be) gives an all-too-brief glimpse of the beauty of the Jamaican countryside. Many of the beach scenes were shot in California rather than Jamaica, and don't portray the beauty of the film's professed locale.

The second half of the film drags, as the couple goes through the inevitable conflicts in cultivating a lasting relationship when they have littlein common. The contrived "reunion" ending is unsatisfying, as we never really buy into this couple's ability to build a relationship with a future. I wanted to cheer them on, but I knew, even if they didn't yet, that this couple was only months away from a bitter final split.



- Jill Cozzi





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