“Just Wright” is billed as a romantic comedy, but it doesn’t have many laughs to offer, and not much in the way of real romance either. And maybe that’s OK. The very platonic-seeming chemistry between its main characters — Queen Latifah as a goodhearted physical therapist and Common as a goodhearted NBA celebrity — seems to have been forged from an ore of gracious gameness. And it’s a nice, clean little arena they’ve got to play in (with a few actual NBA celebrities), even if court-shoe squeaks fly a little more freely than romantic sparks and comity trumps comedy. Maybe this is really a movie about sportsmanship.
Certainly some of that will be required in order to get past the contrivance and give in to the ebullience. So be a sport and ask yourself this: Can an unpretentious, plus-sized Jersey girl ever hope to nab a Nets star forward for her Mr. Right? Can she do it even with her daintier and more dazzling godsister (Paula Patton), who wants so much to sit among the players’ wives, very much in the way? Sure she can.
It will require some patience. But director Sanaa Hamri has a way with plot points that in her better moments makes the predictability of Michael Elliot’s script seem merely like economy. Likewise, the stars play out familiar inevitabilities as mutually encouraging discoveries. The whole movie acts casual, just loping along and acquainting itself with its audience, being friendly but not forward. Hey, it eventually asks, wanna shoot some hoops and jump through some?
And so our affable perpetual bridesmaid bemusedly stands by as her gal pal gets the guy, then gets spooked off by his career-threatening injury. At which point, finally, the therapist can get to work. Strange that as both a stat-spouting basketball fan and an evidently competent medical professional, she seems not to have thought of training pro athletes until now. Is it due to her modesty, her habitually low expectations? Or is it because her philosophy of therapeutic caregiving, which inclines toward the holistic, isn’t yet entirely worked out? She’s irked that her dad (James Pickens Jr.), who’s hopeless at home maintenance, won’t hire a handyman to keep the front doorknob from falling off, but you don’t see her fixing the hinge-crimping dent in the door of her beater Mustang either. Why? Because it has sentimental value (she calls it a dimple), and because she’s found a reliable way to work around it.
So let’s just say that with pep talks from a woman like this, all musical transitions between the solemn piano tinkle of low self esteem and the steady pump of cock rock seem entirely superfluous. There can be no doubt that she’ll get her All-Star back in shape in time for the playoffs, with his knee in working order and his head screwed on right enough that he’ll fall for her too. (Yes, that’s double wish-fulfillment duty: for curvy homegirls and for Nets fans alike.) Even if Patton’s character is the one most in need of growth, with her gold-digging, status-seeking impulse a fresher dramatic (and romantic and comedic) prospect, nobody wants to leave the lovely Latifah stranded as some kind of Cupid-lady couples’ rehabilitator.
Hamri seems to know she needn’t belabor Latifah’s low-key lovability because that asset comes so naturally already; just casting her was enough. Common, for his part, makes up for what he lacks in nuance with a charming sort of wide-openness — he gets the important stuff, like gratitude, which in an absurdly artificial situation at least helps prevent the fantasy from spoiling.
The priority here is to keep the courtship on the court — in this case, a safe, cozy place where platitudes may be traded openly and in good faith. Maybe we can’t call “Just Wright” a winner today, but we still can congratulate it on a good game.