Flick & Role: Just Wright

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Today brings us Just Wright, the terrific 2010 romantic drama starring Queen Latifah, Common, Paula Patton, Phylicia Rashad, Pam Grier, and NBA stalwarts from Dwyane Wade to Rod Thorn.

The NBA is defined by spectacle on and off the court. People still play the game. Yes, people who jump over cars and live in houses the size of regional airports and throw soup at coaches. But they’re still like you and me.

That is the principle director Sanaa Hamri (Something New) uses as her north star in the preposterously overlooked Just Wright. Elements of the NBA are all over the film from the presence of Marv Albert (who has become an institution in this column) to cameos from Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard. Instead of being paraded in front of basketball fans as a reward, they’re incorporated seamlessly into the narrative of two complete people learning that they’re meant for each other.

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Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah) would be just fine without a man. She lives in a gorgeous fixer-upper in the rare New Jersey neighborhood free of strip malls and McMansions. She happily works as a physical therapist at a hospital. The only thing missing is love, but Queen Latifah is such an effervescent performer that we know Leslie is fine, even if her needling mom (Pam Grier) tries to convince her otherwise.

To borrow from the (in)famous monologue from Gone Girl—Leslie does not fit the concept of the “Cool Girl.” She’s not petite—“I’m not one of those salad-eating chicks,” she boasts—or girly enough to fit that category. The same way some men get intimidated by a woman who’s more intelligent than they are, some men get angered by women who navigate their world with more certainty. Watch any female sports reporter who comments on a game or player on Twitter and wait for the “well, actually…” or misogynistic comment. Someone who detests the mold, can see what scores of men hard-wired to pine for one simple desire neglect, is Leslie’s perfect match.

Morgan (Paula Patton), Leslie’s godsister, is everyone’s type, and she knows it. Her time as a professional hot girl is running out—30 is looming. Leslie goes to Nets games as a fan—and a vociferous, jersey-wearing one at that; Morgan pines for the women in the wives’ section from very afar and to scheme how to get here. Her goal is to become a brand.

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When Leslie meets Nets star Scott McKnight (Common) at a gas station—the most unromantic setting possible—after a Nets game, they interact as human beings. She helps him find the gas tank to his fancy new car, and he doesn’t start lecturing her about fuel injection. She spots his Joni Mitchell CD, and they discover they’re both fans. The encounter is fun and natural, a classic how-we-met story. She ends up with an invitation to Scott’s birthday party. Leslie brings Morgan.

The casting of Paula Patton is crucial. Queen Latifah, who has skin like the caramel in a candy bar commercial, is stunning. She was a spokesperson for Cover Girl, a gig given to the “Whoa!” segment of the population. Patton, though, is empirically gorgeous, a woman made for the big screen. You can understand why ex-husband Robin Thicke wrote a career-torpedoing album to get her back, compete with Buffalo Bill-inspired lyrics such as “I will always daydream wishing that you were mine / I understand right now you need some space and time / I can smell your perfume / Your legs are on my walls / Your body’s on my ceiling / Your giggle down the hall.”

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Scott, of course, sees Morgan. It’s reflexive. She expertly sets the bait, conjuring a phony emergency (late-night charity work, which the civic-minded Scott notices) so she and Leslie leave the party early. Their relationship starts with a lie in a setting that naturally produces fronts, one that Leslie pierces. She hands Scott a birthday card, joking that there’s no cash in it.

A few days later, Scott tracks Morgan down at Leslie’s house. This is life’s script. The two good-looking people will end up together. Morgan and Scott begin a whirlwind courtship featuring paparazzi and dinners at places where the menus don’t feature pictures of the food. Scott gets caught up in it as well, proposing to her at his party celebrating his selection to the All-Star team. But in the speech preceding the memorable moment, Scott mentions the gas station meet-up. Leslie is never far from his mind. Soon, she’s living in his palatial NYC digs. In an historic first, Scott suffers a brutal knee injury while competing at an All-Star Game. The prognosis is career-threatening, a disastrous development for a contract year and for Morgan, who recoils in horror when the blonde, lithe physical therapist assigned to Scott sends her “ho-dar” beeping. She asks Leslie to take over, which she does, even when Morgan ditches Scott while he sleeps. Though, to her credit, Morgan leaves the ring and a note.

Leslie keeps a shocked, self-pitying Scott from spiraling. She brings him to Rucker Park to reacquaint him with his love of the game, before putting him through a grueling rehab. They fall asleep on the couch watching Romancing the Stone. They play cards and hit up a food truck. Realness is the most enchanting part about Just Wright, because everyone wants that. I’m sure after going to Kanye and Kim’s underwater dance parties Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union just want to knock back on the couch and watch Vanderpump Rules in sweats. Romance is about being there during the unglamorous times—and even enjoying them. Scott’s world is spectacle. Leslie is all real.

Even the NBA cameos are regular. Wade chats up Scott before tipoff; Howard visits Scott when he’s nursing his injury. Elton Brand shows Leslie the 76ers’ training facility. Rod Thorn has as much screen time as any of these guys.  And it succeeds grandly, because Common and Queen Latifah—unlike Forget Paris, last week’s selection—don’t devolve into capital-p personalities. You fall in love with the people on screen. Credit screenwriter Michael Elliot (Like Mike) for making Scott an overwhelmed soul dealing with his feelings and a career suddenly in jeopardy. The NBA caters to young people so hard that I kept expecting Like Mike lesson-learning or palate-cleansing silliness to emerge. The only thing that’s troubling is Morgan, but she’s clearly a vacuous caricature. Who orders champagne at every meal? And Grier’s character doesn’t represent the film’s governing logic. That makes Just Wright less My Big Fat Greek Wedding and more Love & Basketball, a big relief. Just Wright is that rare date movie for grown-ups starring grown-ups.

Maybe that’s why Just Wright faltered at the box office. From what I can tell, romances that make money are big, dumb spectacles or summery tinged love-against-all-odds monstrosities featuring a smooth-chested haircut taking off their shirt in a bucolic paradise. (Thanks, Nicholas Sparks.) These films present lush escapism; Hamri opts for soothing neutrals or light colors and pleasantness. Just Wright is a different escapism, beyond the New Jersey Nets selling out home games. A lot about love is pointless and aggravating. It’s nice to see two people who we know love each other realize it themselves. When it’s done as gimmick-free as it is in Just Wright, that is enchanting.