Kenya (Sanaa Lathan, "Love & Basketball") is a workaholic African-American who faces daily struggles with race and class pressures. Single and looking for romance, Kenya is set up with Brian (Simon Baker, "Land of the Dead"), a laid-back Caucasian landscaper who is instantly smitten. Forced to confront her own hang-ups about race, Kenya embarks on a very self-conscious relationship with Brian, struggling to stay focused on her heart and not her skin color.
The ambition of Sanaa Hamri's "Something New" (IMDb listing) is to present an alternative to the aggressive urban films that Hollywood sends down the pipe every year. Here's a movie about intelligent, successful, neurotic black characters who desire love, respect, and appreciation for their talents, and not glory for their attitudes. "New" is responsive filmmaking not seen since the heyday of Spike Lee, though Hamri isn't interested in anything volatile that would turn this into "Jungle Fever 2." For better or worse, "New" is an abnormally soft film about interracial romance and societal differences.
To protect her directing debut, Hamri has cast her film well, choosing two outstanding actors to play Kenya and Brian. After taking some time off to make her agents happy ("Alien vs. Predator"), Sanaa Lathan returns to a role of true substance, with Hamri allowing the actress to play the strong, independent character she's so good at. Lathan is a collection of doubt, lust, and humility here, and her chemistry with the appealing Simon Baker is unexpectedly strong.
And thank heavens these actors connect so well, because the screenplay by Kriss Turner doesn't always allow them to naturally articulate their feelings. Prone to having the characters deliver speeches in place of honest expression, "New" stumbles when it forces issues on the story in place of finding more creative ways to introduce conflict. Hamri knows how to find the warm gooey center of attraction, using extreme close-ups and a fuzzy lighting design to soak up the glow of desire. But Hamri is incapable of organically maintaining the trajectory of the central relationship, and soon trots our lame reasons for Kenya and Brian to argue, only because she needs to situate the film in a position to gobble up pandering third act cliches like a Pac-Man game.
The effort to project positive African-American images is refreshing, and I like how some of Hamri and Turner's considerate ideas counteract today's corrosive urban cinema landscape, but "Something New" is still a letdown. It had the brains to be better than the typical romantic comedy, yet it gives in to doubt and formula far too easily, taking the steam out of the filmmakers' ambitions.
Filmfodder Grade: C+