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Nicole Ari Parker gets laughs -- at last! -- in '35 and Ticking'

Sharp and svelte but also funny, Nicole Ari Parker typically hits the screen as put-together characters like Eddie Murphy's ex-wife in "Imagine This." So she leapt at the chance to play Zenobia, the comically confused sportscaster heroine of "35 and Ticking."

Parker was born in Washington and raised in Baltimore from age 2. She also lived for six years as an adult in Atlanta. "35 and Ticking" opens Friday in Atlanta, D.C., and in Baltimore at the AMC Owings Mills and the AMC Security Square. Parker is thrilled that hometown audiences will get a chance to see her wilder, goofier side on-screen.

Zenobia only looks slick. She still feels like the girl who was too tall for every boy in her class. She's a good-hearted woman with exacting standards. She'll have fun once she settles into a bowling alley — but she won't put on her bowling shoes until the counter-girl bombs them with deodorizer. A modest media celebrity, Zenobia can tongue-lash a narcissistic basketball star until you see the welts on his ego. She's only at home, though, with three childhood friends — Victoria (Tamala Jones), Phil (Keith Robinson) and Cleavon (Kevin Hart). They've also had hard times adjusting to the late prime of their lives.

"I took the job because [writer-director] Russ Parr was asking me to be closer to who I really am," Parker said on Tuesday from New York, where she celebrated her sixth anniversary with her actor husband, Boris Kodjoe. "My sixth anniversary," she quipped. "That's 25 years, in Hollywood years."

It's a good line. In fact, Parker said, "I can be funny, and I was thirsty to play that part of me. My humor is a lot like Kristen Wiig's from 'Saturday Night Live' or 'Bridesmaids.' Quirky, off the beaten path. I can play seemingly normal — but two minutes into it you realize it's not. I can be really silly, but I never get to do that. I'm always playing on-the-nose characters, professionals — lawyers, a serious news anchor, people with a really focused energy, which can become a cliched type. Here, as a sportscaster, I love that I got to be funny and not take myself too seriously. For me it was like doing an 'SNL' skit."

Parker has starred in cable and network series like "The Deep End" and "Soul Food" (where she met her husband) and studio films like "Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins" and "Imagine This." She has now appeared, back-to-back, in two low-budget, independent, African-American movies. (The other is "Pastor Brown," starring Salli Richardson as an exotic dancer who tries to honor her father's dying wish to take over his Baptist church).

"My husband and I are loyal to our community and very approachable, even though we're kind of mainstream," she said. "We want to tell stories about and for us." What Parker doesn't want is "to be locked into a box."

Parker wasn't making a statement when she did these films. "I didn't really think about that — they were straight offers. They were not big-money jobs, but they were fulfilling. They allowed me to keep my creative juices flowing while spending time with my young kids. [They're now 4 and 6.] In these films, most of us actors have one take, one set-up, one chance at our closeup. It felt good to work like that, partly because all the other actors were in that with you. Everybody's rhythms and beats sliding into each other can sometimes make for a fiasco. But here it was a really great synergy."

What drew Parker to the script was the idea of long-term friendships between men and women who aren't necessarily in relationships with each other. Yes, the title refers to a woman's biological clock — which has begun to resonate like a gong for Zenobia and Victoria. And the script spends a lot of time on late-30s angst about "marital disillusionment and searching for the perfect mate."

But Parker said that it was ultimately about pals who stay in touch and take care of each other.

"I'd never worked with Tamala Jones before, but we stepped right into a sisterhood kind of friendship that was great," she said. For Parker, "35 and Ticking" is one lighthearted film "that has its finger on the pulse of things that people really go through, white and black. Single girls — it doesn't matter what color they are. I hope it gets an extended release because they can really relate to it."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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