The Next Best Thing

Children and emotional children
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2000
Director: 
John Schlesinger
Starring: 
Madonna, Rupert Everett, Benjamin Bratt
The Setup: 
Woman and her gay best friend decide to raise a son together.
Discussion: 

It's beat on Madonna time once more as we eviscerate this horrid "issue-based" comedy, then set it on fire, then urinate on it. Madonna and Rupert Everett are supposedly best friends [despite their clanging lack of chemistry] and become a couple to raise the child she believes is his. Along the way we learn a number of Very Important Lessons about a wide range of gay issues.

I have no idea how this ended up at my house. I think at a certain point I just put all of Madonna's movies on my queue, especially post Body of Evidence. I had seen this at theaters when it was out and been not surprised to find it a lifeless turd, and a lifeless turd it remained this time, only with a few interesting elements the intervening years have wrought. At this point the movie has value for demonstrating how far gays have come in moving issues away from the old musty "gay is okay" themes, with their attendant addiction to marginalization, toward issues of integration into mainstream society (because OF COURSE gay is okay), represented best by the gay marriage issue. It also somehow seems a reflection of America pre-9/11, blissfully oblivious to economic and political realities that would later become everyday concerns.

What I remember of the context of this movie is that Madonna's career was a bit aimless at this point, the question of whether she was still producing anything remotely relevant hanging over everything she did. She had also become spiritual and hyper-fit, and everything she did was beginning to have the stink of containing a Very Important Lesson for all of us unenlightened to learn from. Rupert Everett was suddenly hot for his appearance as Julia Roberts' gay best friend in My Best Friend's Wedding, and in retrospect it's perhaps a bit curious he would cement his "gay best friend" role here. Suddenly it became known that Madonna and Everett were the very best of friends--although to some (such as myself) it had the air that Everett was her new Pet Gay, and their friendship yet another example of Madonna offering us all an extremely important lesson. The way their amazingly intimate friendship suddenly vaporized after this movie was released added to this impression. But at the time their friendship had gotten so much press that when this movie was announced, it seemed inevitable.

So we open with a shot of a dancing Shiva in Madonna's yoga studio. Her character is Abbie, but the fact of her being a spiritually-centered fitness enthusiast who teaches others seemed like pure Madonna. This is intercut with shots of Everett as Robert in butch sleeveless T shirts and working with heavy construction equipment. He's no dainty publicist or party-planning poof, you see. Already lessons are being imparted. Madonna drives her vintage convertible back to her house, where her latest boyfriend is packing up to leave. We get the impression that he's the latest in her string of failed relationships, and why is he leaving? Why because she's TOO SMART! Too PERFECT! "I want to date less complicated women," he complains, and also objects to her instructing him during sex. You see, men are intimidated by women who are powerful and in fact equal, or perhaps superior, to them. It's not that Abbie has any real problems, NO! It's just that she's TOO GOOD. This is reinforced a second later when Robert is telling her that she's the most beautiful woman he knows, inside and out, and he would in fact like to BE her. Oh Abbie/Madonna, you're just too perfect! And poor, lesser-evolved straight men simply can't keep up. That's the tragedy!

After the movie goes for easy laughs by having Robert dress as a caricature of an uber-flamboyant gay man in order to get the keys back from Kevin, the unevolved boyfriend, in order to embarrass him in front of his hip-hop star clients, we suddenly introduce Neil Patrick Harris as friend David, attending the funeral of his lover. Gay issue #327 comes to the fore for a moment as we learn that David is barred from his own lover's funeral by his lover's evil bitch mom, seen glaring in numerous shots. But a funeral is a strange way to introduce characters, given as there's apparently a whole backstory and we have no idea who these people are. At the funeral the group, who we are to understand were close friends, talk about how the deceased's favorite song was Don MacLean's American Pie, and then they start to SING it, accapella, as you at home are going "No... No... No..." But continue they do. Then you recall that Madonna's tie-in single for this movie was a cover of American Pie, and then you might have a moment where you wonder what a song about the death of Buddy Holly has to do with the story of this film, but then you just realize it's probably better not to ask too many questions.

The next day Abbie and Robert spend in drinking around the pool of this elderly gay couple where he lives and works as a sort of live-in groundskeeper (it's L.A.?). We see Robert doing laps in the pool with a black lab that vanishes for the remainder of the film, and then see Abbie applying oil to Robert's back, saying "You need to get your back waxed again." This stands out as a bit odd as this is the ONE spoken line of dialogue in the middle of a wordless montage. I guess the filmmakers just REALLY wanted to shoehorn that message about the necessity of total body depilation in there somehow. That night they get drunk (numerous shots of drinks and drinking tell us: "They are getting drunk") and end up destroying the several expensive objects in their unknowing hosts' house. They end up kissing, and--fade out.

In the morning (afternoon, actually) they wake and realize what happened. Robert realizes that their hosts, the "two most evil queens in all Christendom," will be home any minute, and they need to clean up. But Abbie wants to talk about what happened, and they end up having a fight, all because Robert simply doesn't have the ability to say "Can we talk about this after we clean up?" Around now you start to realize that this movie is trying to have witty banter (and tying to be a comedy in general?) when Abbie says "I don't think I've been to that European country where they say hello by sticking their tongue down your throat," and Robert replies "Oh, so you haven't been to Italy lately, have you?" Only it takes so long for then to blurt out these long, chunky lines, the wit dies in the meantime. Their silly trumped-up fight ends when she storms out, and then we are apparently meant to believe that they spend several weeks not speaking. These are really some mature people. By the way, below you'll see what Madonna's hair looks like after a wild evening of drinking and wanton sex.

Soon we see formerly vegetarian Abbie eating a cheeseburger, a fact she needed her friend to point out (vegetarians order and eat cheeseburgers purely by mistake all the time) and begins to realize she may be preggers. This is soon confirmed, and she goes over to Robert's to tell him he's the father, and to ask him to move in and raise the child as its father. She has a line about how she's decided to keep the child, and it must have been such a temptation to have her say "But I've made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby." He agrees, but stipulates that they always plan to share the child no matter what happens, a promise you might have cause to reflect on later.

Each of their friends advises them against the plan. In here we meet Robert's parents, his uptight and disapproving father, who he is estranged from, and his fun, who-cares mother, whom he adores. Most films have to be directed pretty badly for a casual viewer to notice, but I have to say that this film contained more than a few shots that made me think: "Why are we looking at this?" For example, on the way back from the airport, we start having shots of churning oil pumps. Does that have anything to do with this story? Does it supply any context? Are we to understand that this is all inextricably tied to America's dwindling fossil fuel resources?

Anyway, suddenly it's five years later and their child, Sam, is a bright and adorable little boy. His father teaches him to deal with criticism but ignoring it and putting up an imaginary screen between he and his critics. Yes, teach the kids denial as a coping mechanism early! Good parenting! We see that Abbie is wearing a jewel on her forehead to denote her advanced spiritual attainment, but the effect comes across quite true-to-life as one of these bourgeois L.A. yuppies who think they are like SUPER connected with the universe because they shop at Whole Foods and drive a hybrid car. We see that Robert is dating a hot cardiologist, but that Abbie is lonely. Then we see Robert's cardiologist boyfriend break up with him because Robert is too committed to Sam! In here we also having scenes to show us that they are both wonderful, well-adjusted parents.

Then one day Benjamin Bratt as Ben wanders into Abbie's yoga studio, looking for some free weights and suchlike. Because you see, it is SO difficult to find a gym in L.A., anyone might wander into a yoga studio and expect there to be some hardcore iron-pumping going on. She convinces him to stay for a class, and of course he's hooked! He asks her out to dinner that night. Robert is a bit of a bitch to him when he arrives, and rather ruffled that Abbie should have a date at all. Abbie and Ben have a nice date, and I found myself writing in my notes a sentence I never expected to write: "The movie comes alive when Benjamin Bratt enters." Only it doesn't quite, it just shows a pulse, of which it had none before. Madonna is notably more relaxed acting against Bratt than with Everett. She and Robert are total bitches to each other when she returns, making it seem as though they have all these barely-concealed feelings of hate for each other they've been papering over up til now. Wow, what great people and well-adjusted parents.

Tensions continue to build as Ben accompanies the family to the beach, where we see that Ben calls Sam "Sammy" and roughhouses with him in a way Robert doesn't. If this movie wanted to have any actual content it could have gone into this notion that Ben is a better father because he roughhouses with Sam in a physical way and provides a more "manly" role model, but that would be an actual issue and this movie is not about that. Anyway, then Ben stays over and Sam encounters him coming out of the shower, which causes Robert to freak and throw a scene. What the problem is we're never clear on, and in fact it's impossible to see what the problem with Abbie dating at all is, and it just makes Robert seem like a total selfish asshole cock. So it's kind of funny, because the movie is throwing out all these whiny, wring-your-hands gay issues to make us sympathetic to the poor, poor gays, but then it thinks nothing of showing its main gay character as a totally self-centered, emotionally-immature asshole!

SPOILERS > > >
Not like Abbie fares much better. Soon it is learned that Ben has been offered a job back in New York, which causes Robert to hit the ceiling. NO, they CANNOT discuss it like mature adults, because Robert is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store parking lot, before he even learns any of the details--or if Abbie had any thoughts on how to work it out. Robert spends the night at Neil Patrick Harris' house--remember him? Remember that he was in this movie?--where Neil is sorting out his HIV medications and bemoaning his fate so that we can shoehorn in yet another gay issue. Then Robert returns home to find that Abbie has taken the kid and all her belongings and moved out overnight. My God, these people are fucking CHILDREN! I'm supposed to get behind their plight--and ability of either of them to raise a child--when they're both emotionally immature basket cases?

Unbelievably, things get worse. Abbie comes over to see Robert after an indeterminate time and tells him that she has known for THREE YEARS that Sam is not his child! He is Kevin's, the asshole boyfriend at the beginning. What this means--though the movie itself isn't smart enough to realize that we'll put together these implications--is that Abbie probably had some idea from the start that there's a possibility that Sam is not Robert's, meaning that she manipulated him into this relationship under false circumstances from the very beginning. For Christ's sake, both of these people are UTTERLY DESPICABLE!

So Robert goes to a lawyer, and the unpleasantness is leavened for a bit because at least you get to watch Illeana Douglas. She tells him that he has no case, and it will bankrupt him. Then gruff dad comes by and gives Robert some money to carry the pointless case on, because Gay Movie Convention #86 states that the gruff dad will always come through with a statement of acceptance late into the third act. Then we have a scene where Abbie's lawyer assails Robert's character on the basis that he's gay, so that we can all wring our hands and bemoan how UNFAIR it all is. Then Robert goes to Kevin--asshole boyfriend from the beginning and Sam's real father--and asks Kevin to sue for custody, saying Robert will cover all the court costs. Robert says "Please help me," but--WHY? Why should this guy--last seen when Robert made a big attempt to embarrass him--help Robert? Because everyone should help Robert because, hello, he's ROBERT.

So just as Robert is in court making the big speech you knew was coming, and custody of Sam is being awarded to Abbie, Kevin shows! He says he wants to get to know Sam for himself, and decide what he wants to do! So judgement is suspended for the time being. By now this movie had completely jumped the rails and is headed who knows where. Then Abbie comes over to Robert and is furious: "You had to bring him (Kevin) back into my life!" Yes, you see, because it's about HER. Everything she has done is FINE, but Robert making her deal with her own former boyfriend is OVER THE LINE! And let's not forget that this woman is supposedly all spiritually-centered and supposedly so enlightened that she is in a position to instruct others. Further reinforcement of the idea that when some Western person is coming on as all down with Eastern religions, the most appropriate response is FLIGHT.

So months later Robert is completely out of Sam's life and reduced to loitering outside the kid's school in order to catch a glimpse of him. Ben sees him and comes over, makes a few conciliatory words, but Abbie sees him and spirits the child into the car while issuing savage looks in Robert's direction. Now if you thought we were going to have the classic cliche shot of the kid looking longingly out the back window as the car drives away, well I'm afraid you don't get any points, because it's too obvious. Then Robert returns to his butch pickup and you can tell it's the end of the movie because he chose to park in such a photogenic spot, where he might be silhouetted against the blue sky. Abbie pulls up and says he can take Sam for the day, they say they missed each other, and--THAT'S IT?!?! You got it, the movie throws us a few titles, like you might get at the end of a true story, saying that Abbie and Robert shared join custody. Then we have Madonna's cover of American Pie, which is ghastly, and that's it.
SPOILERS END > > >

This movie is quite lame to watch, without doubt, but it's actually more despicable the more you think about it--and let me tell you, if you think about it a little bit, that's more than anyone involved in making the film thought about it. The main thing no one involved seems to get is that both Abbie and Robert come off as horrible, self-centered emotional children, so for us in the audience it's highly questionable whether either of them should be entrusted with care of a child AT ALL, which becomes a huge impediment to our ability to get behind their struggle. I think the movie is trying to go for a sort of War of the Roses meets Kramer vs. Kramer thing in which both sides are a little horrified by the depths their court case has reduced them to, but it's hard to sympathize with, given what awful people they were to begin with. Not to mention that any and all of this could have been avoided if either of them had the emotional maturity of a sixteen-year-old, which is also not to mention that if their way of dealing with the slightest conflict is to just drop all contact with each other for months at a time, they can't really be the best of friends, right?

Roger Ebert nailed it when he described this movie as "a garage sale of gay issues," because it seems like the priority of the original script was to surface as many gay issues as possible, the story of the characters running a distant second. But what's infuriating--and thankfully one of the ways in which this movie now seems horribly out of date--is that the attitude is one of powerless whining. One of the things that used to make me avoid gay films and literature is this pervasive attitude of "Look how hard we have it--and yet there's NOTHING we can do about it! We can only suffer nobly and become bitter from the sidelines." So here in this film we are invited to wallow in how SAD it is that a man is excluded from his lover's funeral, how SAD it is that one's father disapproves of one's life, how SAD that a gay life is considered inappropriate to raise a child, etc. What's annoying is that the attitude is one of resignation, and the movie reinforces the idea that one must accept this second-class status, and merely take refuge in making bitchy comments from the sidelines while self-medicating with booze. We in the audience are not invited to take action to change things, but rather simply to wring our hands and nod knowingly about how very sad it all is. Which, while trying to be progressive, merely underlines the idea that gay life is inherently tragic. Contrast this with the attitude of something like the recent Weekend, in which the gay character's life is what it is, and no one's bemoaning how very tragic it all is. The guys in that movie have issues, say with making public displays of affection, but it's treated as THEIR issue that THEY must get over, rather than the sad realities of their marginalized life that they must simply get used to. Thus one of the purposes this movie now serves is to offer an example of an out-of-date gay reality that we have somehow, thankfully, managed to get out from under.

Also on the DVD is the trailer, mostly notable for misspelling Abbie's name, and Madonna's video for American Pie, which is about a) her breasts, and b) the good American working class. Madonna dances in front of an American flag, shot from a low angle to focus attention on her braless breasts heaving in her tight tank top, intercut with shots of grizzled blue collar workers and families in front of an American flag, seemingly on loan from a year's worth of Chevy commercials. The idea of Madonna being somehow down with the working class, or in some way embodying their struggle, comes off as clangingly false, and one ends with the impression that they just provide an excellent, gritty background for her to pose against. Again, the fact that the song is actually about Buddy Holly's death is not alluded to.

So finally, as a movie? One might be surprised later to discover that this is intended as a comedy, because the attempts at humor don't read as such, and result not in the movie having a mismatched tone, but really NO tone. It just jerks from one scene to the next, not unwatchable but also not gaining any momentum or intrigue, until we get near the end, where things seem to really fly apart. Then the movie just abruptly stops, and the feeling is that the filmmakers simply reached a deadline and had to assemble the finished film with whatever they had shot so far.

If you're mildly curious to see Madonna or just like to watch gay-themed movies, this one won't kill you, but at this point its only relevance might lie in demonstrating a time in gay history we have thankfully managed to move out of. 

Should you watch it: 

No, but if you do it won't kill you and might give you a little--purely unintentional--stuff to think about.