Brown Sugar: One of 2002's most underrated films, Brown Sugar offers more than you'd expect from a conventional romantic comedy. The love story between Dre (Taye Diggs) and Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) is the least interesting part of the movie; the costars have delightful chemistry, but their hookup is a given. What's refreshing is the way the story draws a parallel between Dre and Sidney's longtime friendship (they meet as kids in a 1984 flashback) and the evolution of hip-hop music from urban roots to dubious mainstream acceptance. Dre's a disillusioned producer at pop-fueled Millennium Records, married to a beauty (Nicole Ari Parker) who cheats while embracing her coveted status quo. Editor of an influential music magazine, Sidney's tentatively engaged to a basketball star (Boris Kodjoe), but these loves are obstacles, and Dre and Sidney are meant for each other. In bringing them together, Brown Sugar allows for human mistakes, intelligent solutions, and the kind of three-dimensional behavior that romantic comedies typically don't provide. --Jeff Shannon How Stella Got Her Groove Back: Based on Terry McMillan's best-selling novel, How Stella Got Her Groove Back stars Angela Bassett as a 40-year-old, Manhattan stock trader and single mom whose static life gets a jolt during a vacation with her pal (Whoopi Goldberg) in Jamaica. Sparks fly when Bassett meets a 20-year-old stud (Taye Diggs) who has an ambivalent career path but a great body and lots of sexual energy to burn. After some prodding by Goldberg's warm-funny secondary character, Bassett gets it on with the fellow--and proceeds to worry about what she's doing with a man half her age. The film is most enjoyable in its sunny, exotic early scenes and becomes more formulaic once the unlikely couple transports their will-we-stay-together-or-won't-we tensions back to the Big Apple. But director Kevin Rodney Sullivan goes out of his way to make a movie unabashedly thick with fantasy and wish-fulfillment for female audiences (it's Diggs who reveals a lot more flesh than the regal Bassett). This is a Saturday-night movie all around. --Tom Keogh Waiting to Exhale: Based on a novel by Terry McMillan, this weepy melodrama about four African American women and the men who wronged them became an instant cultural phenomenon when it was released back in 1995. It's easy to see why Exhale struck a nerve: the movie boasts an attractive cast of African American actresses and personalities, including Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Lela Rochon. Unfortunately, though, Exhale sags under the weight of its soapy, crisis of the week plotting and relentlessly cheery "you go, girl!" optimism. And African American men, cast here as insensitive lovers and pigheaded materialists, get the very short end of the feminist stick. Perhaps moviegoers were simply responding to the brilliant soundtrack by R&B superstar Babyface, who provided the movie's only real groove. --Ethan Brown
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