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A look at John Schlesinger’s filmography reveals a four decade body of work that seems almost schizoid in its range of quality. Early on, there are Billy Liar, Darling, and Midnight Cowboy, all memorably fine films from the 60’s, particularly for the distinguished performances Schlesinger drew from his stars – Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. And even back then Schlesinger didn’t shy away from gay themes. 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday was blessed with a literate script by Penelope Gilliat and a superb performance by Peter Finch caught up in a bisexual triangle with a woman and another man. (It may have been the first mainstream film to offer a genuinely erotic kiss between two men.) There were other good Schlesinger films over the years as well, but there were some real duds, too, like Yanks and Pacific Heights.
The Next Best Thing doesn’t offer the profundity of Schlesinger’s best work, but within the context of a commercial film aimed at a wide popular market, it isn’t a dud either, offering two charismatic contemporary stars, Madonna and Rupert Everett, in performances that make the most of a script by Tom Ropelewski, whose past record appears to consist of B-horror and talking animals.
Madonna is Abbie, the owner of a yoga school, whose inner peace does not extend to her love life. Her current boyfriend exits in a snit. Intimacy and commitment are too much to ask in a relationship, he suggests, while Abbie (inexplicably) begs him to stay.
Robert (Everett), a buff gardener, is Abbie’s best friend who happens to be gay. They cap a night of drunken partying with sex – the one and only time – resulting in Abbie becoming pregnant. She wants the baby and Everett accepts the challenge of being the live-in father, though each remain free to pursue their outside relationships. It’s a premise worth exploring at a moment in history when traditional definitions of "family" and "marriage" are in flux and challenged by the wide range of relationships and varying family structures that exist in contemporary life. The Ozzie and Harriet model doesn’t reflect reality any longer for a very large segment of the population. And gay men and lesbians have always had to grope for their own family structures, since there have been no role models and no rules to provide them guidance in such matters.
The first part of The Next Best Thing plays on camp humor, some of it working, some of it not. But the film builds the creation of this twenty-first century family with reasonable conviction, and Schlesinger once again demonstrates his ability to draw the best from good actors. Everett, who seems effortlessly to segue from Shakespeare to Wilde to contemporary comedy, arguably delivers lines better than anyone on the screen today. As Robert, he’s a natural, and though the writing oversimplifies and idealizes his role as a father, he nevertheless is genuinely engaging. Madonna, in a different persona from the black leather and whips of her videos, offers warmth and a new vulnerability in this performance.
Some elements of humor are gleaned from the position of their son, a delightful performance by young Malcolm Stumpf, who is questioned by his peers, for example, as to why mom and dad have separate bedrooms, and tentatively begins to learn what it means to have a gay father. But the plot rushes on to inevitable conflict when Abbie finds a man she wants to marry and the temporary balance in this alternate family is put to the test.
The situation and the performances up to this point succeed in eliciting the viewer’s sympathy, but the writing disappoints with a descent into melodramatic conflict that seems out of character with the people we have gotten to know. The plotting becomes awkwardly forced, but at least retains the virtue of acknowledging the absence of easy solutions to complex family relationships.
With the glitter of its stars, The Next Best Thing will undoubtedly draw a wide audience and most will find it to be reasonably entertaining. To the extent that it fosters thinking about and tolerance for non-traditional families, it is to be commended. But the filmgoer seeking a more credible or profound exploration of the subject matter will be disappointed. This is Schlesinger Light.