In ''Something New," Sanaa Lathan plays a single, upscale, have-it-all Los Angeles professional named Kenya McQueen. Because Kenya is all these things and an African-American woman, she's also faced with the annoying reality that the pickings of worthy black men are slim. But she and her girlfriends believe their
Sure she turns snobby and hostile, then terminates their first meeting. But he doesn't care. Brian fixes up Kenya's garden and seduces her into being his girlfriend. He tells her she needs some color in her life. Their relationship hits speed bumps because no one in her world approves and she's obviously ashamed of him. He puts up with it anyway, as though she were the only hot black yuppie in town.
This is an inept and unsubtle romantic fantasy about how black people and white people don't mix. The movie has to find interracial dating absolutely shocking in order eventually to say, ''Never mind, ladies. Date all the white guys you want."
The success of Paul Haggis's ''Crash" proved that the only way for an American movie to deal with the problem of race is to drop it on an audience's head like an anvil. ''Something New" is a similarly blunt object. There's a profound way for the races to talk to each other (or not to), but Hollywood doesn't seem to have figured it out.
Instead, Kenya seems forced into racializing her frustrations at work, and Brian is made to appear insensitive for not wanting to hear her vent. This is a useful way to kick off a town-hall meeting. It's a terrible start for a love affair.
Sanaa Hamri directed this movie (it's her first feature) and Kriss Turner wrote the screenplay, and neither will drum any logic into Kenya. Would a woman this professional and this together, raised by academics and educated at predominantly white institutions, blanch at the idea of dating a man of another race? Especially one this handsome, independent, and polite? There might be several plausible reasons for her not to date Brian, but the movie doesn't allow her to articulate them.
The problem isn't just Kenya's. Her brother (Donald Faison) calls Brian ''the help" and won't even shake his hand. Her mother (Alfre Woodard) is even haughtier. (The McQueens aren't the Huxtables; they're the Carringtons.) Were Brian black and Kenya named, I don't know, Paris, and if her family and friends were as rude to him, we'd be expected to find their behavior appalling. The movie's perceptions of black and white are so petty that race begins to seem like the stupidest hang-up in the world.
Kenya is as chronically dissatisfied as a lot of ambitious people, which makes her dilemma rich with social comedy. But ''Something New" takes forever to turn progressive. The audience is smarter than the movie right up to the end, when someone finally clears up the apparent mystery. ''The boy is white," says Kenya's dad. ''He's not a Martian." Great, now he tells us.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.