It is clear we are in fantasyland early on in “Just Wright,” when the New Jersey Nets play their home opener in front of a sold-out, raucous crowd on their way to winning the Eastern Conference championship.
And the whole world, not just the sports media but also the trashy gossip magazines, is fascinated by the team’s star player, Scott McKnight, chasing him around to find out who he is dating and speculating about what he will do once his contract is up at the end of the season.
As fantasies go, though, this is a superfamiliar one: it is the Cinderella fairy tale, set in the basketball world, and director Sanaa Hamri and writer Michael Elliot do not breathe much new life into it. Pity, too, because Hamri made a surprisingly refreshing romantic comedy, “Something New,” just a few years ago. “Just Wright,” on the other hand, is full of cliches, contrivances and stock characters. And a bland performance from producer and star Queen Latifah does nothing to elevate the material.
Ordinarily a bold and engaging personality, Latifah plays it safe and sweet as physical therapist Leslie Wright, who is in her mid-30s but has never fallen in love because men always perceive her as more of a pal. Not only is Leslie a hugely knowledgeable basketball fan, she also likes wearing team jerseys when she goes to Nets games, even though her mother (Pam Grier) and her stylish childhood friend, Morgan (Paula Patton), insist she should dress up to bag a man, or better yet, a player.
Of course this is meant as a source of comedy, the contrast of their shallowness and her substance, but it is still an uncomfortably archaic depiction of feminine logic. It also demonstrates how overly simplistic the script is: there is no gray area when it comes to these characters.
Anyway, one night after a Nets game, Leslie just happens to run into Scott (hip-hop star Common) at a gas station; he cannot figure out how to open the tank, so she shows him. In no time, he has invited her to his birthday party, where he naturally ends up falling for the gorgeous (and scheming) Morgan instead. How good-girl Leslie and gold-digging Morgan have remained best friends all this time defies explanation.
Once Scott suffers a career-threatening injury, though, he finds himself in need of some one-on-one attention from a physical therapist. So guess who moves into his mansion? This leads to the obligatory rehab montage. But to be fair, in their quiet, intimate moments together, Latifah and Common do have an easy way with each other; Common, whose previous films include “Wanted” and “American Gangster,” has a low-key confidence about him. And those scenes, like much of “Just Wright,” are shot flatteringly in a soft, warm light.
You know these two are meant to be together, and the de rigueur obstacles that stand in their way are visible from a mile off. Similarly, there is zero surprise when Scott has his big, climactic epiphany while being interviewed on Stuart Scott’s ESPN program _ which supposedly is so popular, every character in the movie just happens to be watching it at the same time. Boo-yah!
“Just Wright,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG for some suggestive material and brief language. Running time: 111 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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