The Best Man Holiday: Malcolm D. Lee’s feature film debut The Best Man came out 14 years ago, which means The Best Man Holiday beats Before Midnight at the time-lapsed relationship-based sequel game. The original film is already a reunion movie, following a group of friends reuniting for the wedding of Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia (Monica Calhoun) some undetermined number of years after graduation, with a handful of flashbacks to the college-years incidents that wreak havoc in the present. The sequel begins with now-grainy footage of the original’s climax before a credits-sequence fast-forward catching us up to the ensemble’s journey: Harper (Taye Diggs) married Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), as promised in that old footage, and the troublemaking novel he published in the first movie became a bestseller; Jordan (Nia Long) has climbed the corporate ladder further and hooked up with a white dude (Eddie Cibrian); Julian (Harold Perrineau) married ex-stripper Candace (Regina Hall) and now runs a private school with her; Lance is about to retire from football and has a bunch of kids with Mia; Quentin (Terrence Howard) is still a slurry, wisecracking stoner/player, but he’s also rich now for some reason.
Almost everyone in the movie, then, is upwardly mobile—save Harper, whose newest book isn’t selling and who has just lost his NYU teaching gig. (Robyn’s catering business goes unmentioned, and their money problems in general seem exaggerated for the plot’s sake.) In a season of serious and challenging movies about race, it’s no small thing that the Best Man series concerns successful, now upper-middle-class or just plain way-upper-class black characters, played by charismatic and oft-underused black actors in contemporary but still unapologetically adult-oriented situations. (Both films earn their R ratings not for raunch or titillation but for the kind of appealingly raw language most studio movies are scared to use outside of crime pictures.)
This too-rare opportunity may explain why Lee’s series grabs at so much more than the romantic dramedy of its basic outlines. The Best Man Holiday at least has more laughs than its predecessor, more comedy-of-manners asides in its first half-hour or so. But both movies are grimmer and more melodramatic than they appear at first, with a moralist streak that can border on hypocrisy. Holiday exacerbates the problem by reviving many of its old dynamics instead of forging new ones: Chestnut’s Lance still hasn’t really forgiven Harper for a college dalliance with Mia—even as the various and sundry infidelities Lance confessed early in the first movie are conveniently forgotten when rehashing the situation. Rather than regard Lance’s feelings—a barely polite notch or two below seething hatred—with a critical eye, the movie remains in creepier-than-ever awe of Lance’s holy dedication to “god, family, and football,” the trinity on which desperate, sneaky Harper wants to construct a bestselling biography.
Between his two Best Man pictures, writer-director Lee seems weirdly self-lacerating about the “writer” half of his job description. Both movies sketch Harper as a spineless, morally compromised screw-up—qualities that the film seems to tie directly into his chosen profession. The other characters politely tolerate him, but seem to more or less embrace Lance wholeheartedly. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy his company, what with his superman physique, his stoic humorlessness about most matters, his frequent stern admonishments to pray, and his violent temper? I wondered at first if Chestnut doesn’t know how to modulate his performance, but thinking it over, I’ve seen him play several actual unsmiling police officers, yet never with the steely unpleasantness he brings to Lance.
His on-screen wife, Calhoun’s Mia, is the opposite: so relentlessly sedated and smiling that their perfect marriage begins unintentionally to resemble hell. The movie takes an even more melodramatic turn in its second half, and even then, Mia’s gentle suffering is kind of insufferable—at least before it’s drowned out by a bizarre turn into sports drama, plus some pregnancy drama, plus god-flogging that just will not let up.
It’s too bad, because Diggs, Perrineau, and Howard have more chemistry this time around—in the first movie, they seemed to bond primarily over mutual irritation—while Lathan, Hall, and Melissa De Sousa (as Perrineau’s bitchy ex) all have more to do. Lee’s traffic-direction skills look rusty; a few of his edits are downright baffling—I swear that in one scene, Perrineau pulls Howard aside for a private conversation that doesn’t take place until after another scene they share has passed—and the movie feels longer than its two hours. With a lighter touch, The Best Man Holiday could have been a delight. Instead, it’s a diverting reunion that doesn’t take full advantage of the time elapsed since the original. Maybe The Best Man Easter will finally get it right circa 2027.