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Queen Latifah rules supreme in humdrum “Just Wright”

Queen Latifah dominates every scene in "Just Wright" (sorry, Common).

There’s not one woman — or man, for that matter — that I know who would not benefit enormously from taking just one class at the Queen Latifah School of Self-Confidence. Try to remember one time she’s been onscreen and the camera didn’t fall buttocks-over-teacups in love with her. I can’t. In every film, Queen Latifah’s the strong, self-possessed woman who holds her head high. Her energy and charisma fill up each frame. There’s an almost regal grace about her that proves irresistible.

The downside of this radiance is that her costars pale by comparison and the movies she stars in aren’t half as good as she is. Look to Sanaa Hamri’s dullish, recycled romantic comedy “Just Wright” as a shining example of this problem, known henceforth as the Queen Latifah Syndrome. “Just Wright” feels like a cobbling together of genre cliches, from the Meet-Cute (at a gas station!) to the Initial Spark and headlong into the Dramatic Turn of Events (i.e., the Competition/Other Woman). All the necessary parts are there — kind of like the game “Operation” the minute it’s opened — so “Just Wright” is perfectly serviceable. There’s a formula, time-tested and general audience-approved, and Hamri follows it to the letter.  That said, there’s nothing inventive or even particularly interesting about “Just Wright.” There are a handful of few scenes where it’s a wonder someone with a poster reading “laugh here” doesn’t pop in front of the camera. Reinvention of tiramisu isn’t required, but is a smattering of ingenuity too much to hope for?

Enter Queen Latifah, stage right. With a by-the-numbers film like this, you have to wonder what the conversation between director and casting director was like. My calculated guess is that both saw “Last Holiday” and knew an actress with a Midas touch when they saw one. That’s why she dominates the movie poster. Hamri hitches all hopes to Latifah’s talent, and “Just Wright” is better for that. Latifah is Leslie Wright, a physical therapist and New York Nets fanatic. When the film opens, she’s anticipating a blind date. (Don’t worry — the one cliche Hamri does not pounce on is the Bad Blind Date Montage.) Looking stunning, she’s a 10+: witty, smart, easygoing, the kind of dinner date that puts you at ease … which translates to she’s about to get The “F-word” Speech. Latifah handles the moment with the elegance of a woman who goes into every date expecting “the man who gets you will be lucky.” Leslie has learned not to let the hurt register, but not show on her face. It doesn’t help that her mother (Pam Grier) tries to convince Leslie she’ll only bag a man by dolling up the way Leslie’s godsister, Morgan (Paula Patton), does. “You catch more flies with mini-skirts and FMPs” and all that.

Readers, provided you’ve seen romantic comedies before you already know where “Just Wright” is headed. Morgan aspires to be an NBA trophy wife, and once she gets NBA All-star player Scott McKnight (Common, wooden but not unredeemably awful) in her crosshairs he’s a goner. Even though Leslie saw him first and really connected with him, Morgan ends up with the skating rink on her finger. Then comes a knee injury severe enough to end Scott’s NBA career unless Leslie can work him back to his A game. This isn’t Queen Latifah’s first rodeo, either, and she understands that it takes a lot of charm to hold up a movie. She generates any sizzle her scenes with Common have — though the pair has a modicum of chemistry — and does her best to make Leslie a three-dimensional character, a warm, kind person who is, above all else, real. None of her costars manage quite as well, though Scott is written as a Joni Mitchell-loving pianist and Patton’s Morgan has a few scattered moments of humanity. James Pickens Jr. continues to be a very subtle actor deserving of deeper parts than this.

No wild twists here: “Just Wright” ends up exactly where we expected and took exactly the route we predicted — didn’t stray from the sidewalk once. But because of the unstoppable Latifah, it almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

Grade: C

Fey and Carell are a comedy dream team in “Date Night”

People who steal dinner reservations (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) have to use the payphone that smells like urine.

Just as the trailers promise, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) spend a lot of time in “Date Night” shrieking and dishevelled, running around like (nicely dressed) headless chickens. But we all know that underneath those layers of ironic normalcy they’ve been waiting years for something this exciting to happen, something to shake them out of their two-car, two-job, two-kid coma. Neither one had the energy to concoct an adventure themselves. All they needed was a movie to do it for them.

This is ground zero of why “Date Night” is such a pointlessly entertaining romp: It makes perfect sense that Phil and Claire’s situation makes no sense. Phil and Claire are nice, overexerted suburbanites who have lost their spark to jobs and kids, and why would they get wrapped up in this kind of tomfoolery if it wasn’t a plot contrivance? Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” requires only that Fey and Carell play along, sell their chagrin at these outrageous circumstances and, at the end, give in/enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all and be a little changed — for the better — by the whole experience. This plot has been done umpteen-thousand times, but it has not been done by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, which makes all the difference. They have the right look, the right romatic and comedy chemistry, the right comic timing (their invented stories about other diners are invaluable). They are the key. Without them, “Date Night” would be just another ho-hum entry in the genre.

Levy wastes little time painting a portrait of suburban life, possibly because he knows there’s no need; this is been-there, done-that territory. Phil and Claire are the definition of respectable married people. He is a tax man who quietly urges his clients to invest their $600 refund instead of blowing it on a trip to Spain so they can “do it on the beach”; she is a real estate agent who lies about how close her houses are to New York City. They see each other mornings and nights, where Claire putting on her dental Night Guard is code for “nobody’s having sex in this bed tonight.” Two jobs and two kids and him never closing any drawer ever have muted their spark. Adventure takes over when Phil and Claire, at a high-falutin’ NYC restaurant, steal the Tripplehorns’ (James Franco, Mila Kunis) reservation. (This becomes a running gag that loses only a little steam by the conclusion.) This is worse than stealing someone else’s reservation because the Tripplehorns are in cahoots with a meanie mobster (Ray Liotta as Ray Liotta), two dirty cops (Jimmi Simpson, Common) and the DA (William Fichtner), a man who cannot resist a lap dance.

Spending any more time detailing the plot would be useless, because it’s standard-issue fish-outta-water comedy stuff. The important thing isn’t what happens but how Fey and Carell make what happens funny. There are, perhaps, no two comedians better suited for this: Fey excels at acerbic observational humor and withering sarcasm, while Carell could make understated physical comedy and rants into Olympic sports. For fans of both, this is an epic pairing that should have happened years ago. Marvel at the way Carell loses his cool with Claire’s perpetually shirtless ex-client Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, funnier than people give him credit for), or Carell’s expression as he clings to the hood of a cab he’s driven into the Hudson. Then there’s the matter of their bizarre “routine” in a local strip joint, which defies explanation and contains a shoutout to “Showgirls.” They get support from Franco and Kunis, no slouches in the ha-ha department, who are underused as the Tripplehorns but make their parts memorable. Kristen Wiig provides her usual outrageous soundbites, and Fichtner, too, a workhorse of a character actor, is somewhat wasted in his part. Please, Hollywood, let Wiig and Fichtner headline some movies. Just one each?

Then again, “Date Night” is essentially a big, noisy showcase for the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. And if either one was any less talented, that might be a bad thing.

Grade: B