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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

Gritty “Precious” offers uplift without melodrama

Newcomer Gabby Sidibe delivers a gritty, moving performance in "Precious."

Along the way, some well-meaning but patronizing soul probably told Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) that every day is a gift from God, but she has no reason to believe it. Raped by her father and abused and insulted by her vicious mother (Mo’Nique), the stoic Precious leads a life marked by unimaginable daily horrors. She has, at 16, learned to retreat far inside her own head because despair knows no bottom. 

So begins the unflinchingly realistic “Precious,” a film by new director Lee Daniels that contains not the slightest trace of sentimentality. There are no cloying motivational speeches ripped from Hallmark cards. No, “Precious” is a hard movie about hard people — some who choose to accept the misery of their circumstances and some who choose to struggle against them. Daniels means to show us that those who struggle have no guarantees, only hope. And hope can be misleading.

Yet for all the grit, “Precious” is an uplifting film, thanks in large part to a nuanced performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe, with her remote eyes, won’t let us shrink from Precious’ pain, though Precious herself has become a master of detachment. As a child she acquired a skill for leaving her body, floating above the beatings and the sexual abuse to a hazy fantasy world. Life, though, has a cruel way of yanking her back down into the dirty apartment she shares with her hateful mother Mary (Mo’Nique), who sees Precious as a live-in slave and bait to hook more welfare checks. Precious weathers the abuse silently, and she might continue to swallow more sadness than humanly possible if not for a suspension — related to her second pregnancy — that leads her to an alternative school. Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) pushes Precious to tell her story through her class journal and connects her with a plainspoken but sympathetic social worker (Mariah Carey). Slowly, with help from both women and from her Each One classmates, Precious begins to find the power in her own voice.

Not one word of all this summary, however, really captures the mix of grim reality and hopefulness that makes “Precious” such a strong film. Based on Sapphire’s novel “Push,” the movie is unrelenting in its examination of what life looks like at its bleakest. Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher does not soften his script to protect us from seeing the worst parts of Precious’ existence. Neither does Daniels shy away; instead, he uses documentary-style footage to force us inside Precious’ hellish Harlem apartment. In this way, the director eliminates the protective barrier that separates us from the characters. We are stripped of our defenses just as Precious is stripped of hers; her world becomes our world. This technique is effective because it strips away Hollywood gloss, leaving nothing but an unpretty story. Funny, isn’t it, how the most compelling stories tend to be the ones that lack gimmicks?

This, in fact, is where Daniels succeeds the most: telling a compelling story without relying on cliches or melodrama. He lets the actors take the lead, which suggests a level of intuition rarely seen in new directors. Because of this, almost none of the film’s scenes feel contrived, particularly those that take place inside the Each One Teach One classroom. Precious’ classmates chatter and bicker in ways that feel completely natural, and Patton lets Ms. Rain seem just as overwhelmed but eager and open as her students. Carey, remarkably unglammed and subtle, plays a social worker who isn’t delusional enough to believe she can swoop in and rescue Precious. She offers no false hopes, and so her conversations with Precious seem grounded in reality.

Devastatingly real, too, are Mo’Nique and Sidibe, who convey how the same hardship shapes two people differently. Who could have expected this kind of raw, raging performance from Mo’Nique, who’s spent her career languishing in movies like “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”? It’s the kind of left-field move that suggests she’s wildly underestimated her own talent. Sidibe matches her, though, not with explosiveness but with intensity. She deeply understands Precious’ pain, understands how she must suppress it until there’s time and space to express it. When those tears come, they feel like a hard-earned breakthrough. Simply put, Sidibe’s performance is a revelation. So is “Precious.”

Grade: A