Friday August 14, 1998
Taken from the best-selling novel by "Waiting to Exhale's" Terry McMillan, "Stella" may be frothy and paper-thin, but it's also another great success for star Angela Bassett, who transforms the film into an infomercial for her considerable abilities.
Looking gorgeous in more Ruth E. Carter-designed outfits than Imelda Marcos has shoes and displaying a smile that could light several cities, Bassett also has the skill and force of personality to make this frivolous concoction as close to real as it's going to get. During those frequent moments when "Stella" trembles on the brink of complete unbelievability, it's always Bassett who brings it back more or less alive.
Her Stella is a strictly business San Francisco stockbroker who has made all kinds of money by asking clients, "Do you want to be rich or do you want to wallow in regret?" Divorced from her husband, she is doing a hell of a job raising son Quincy (Michael J. Pagan) and coping with her sisters, bossy busybody Angela (Suzzanne Douglas) and sassy Vanessa (Regina King, Cuba Gooding Jr.'s wife in "Jerry Maguire").
Money she may have, but 40-year-old Stella is without a man, something her sisters delight in moaning and groaning about. Even Quincy, a candidate for the best-behaved young man in America, pleads with his mother as he heads off on a two-week vacation to "try and have some fun while I'm gone."
Strictly on a whim, Stella decides to spend that time in Jamaica. Her companion of choice is longtime best friend Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), a Manhattan department store window dresser who is the film's designated comic relief, a reliable source of irreverent attitude and laugh lines.
A veteran of fending off more mature suitors, Stella is astonished by the attentions of a 20-year-old Jamaican named Winston (Taye Diggs in his feature debut). "There ought to be a law against being young and sexy" is her thought when she spies him, but against her better judgment she finds herself fatally attracted to someone she worries is not legally of age.
From this point on, "Stella" becomes one of those low-maintenance movies that can be left for 10 minutes without losing track of the plot. Since its surprises are minimal (the title, after all, is "How Stella" not "Did Stella"), the main source of astonishment is that screenwriters McMillan & Ron Bass have been able to coax as many minutes out of this situation as they have.
Some recent French films, including last year's "Post Coitum" and the forthcoming "School of Flesh," have realistically treated the difficulties of relationships between young men and older women, but "realism" is not a word in this picture's vocabulary. While everyone within the sound of Stella's voice is upset by her "trolling the kindergarten yards" for a romantic mate, all the obstacles she and Winston face are no more than eggshell thick.
Winston's mother, Stella's sisters and even a worried Stella herself take turns treating this love affair as if it were the outre pairing of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in "Harold and Maude," but the film goes out of its way to minimize any factors that would make the romance even borderline unsuitable and thus disturb the fantasy.
First of all, with the dynamic Bassett coming off as years younger than 40 and the handsome Diggs (a New Jersey-born actor who does a convincing Jamaican accent) having a receding hairline, the two look much more like brother and sister than mother and son.
Cutting the age difference even more is Winston's earnestness, solicitousness and a remarkable maturity that is way beyond the reach of your average 20-year-old. Add in a set of wealthy, cultured parents, plus his own potential interest in medical school, and Winston stands revealed as the same kind of paragon Sidney Poitier's character was in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Under the workmanlike direction of Kevin Rodney Sullivan, "Stella" offers a few sensual moments and some passable comedy. But it's mostly a smoothly artificial soap whose likable people do the most predictable things. Delilah calls Stella's situation "The Young, the Restless and the Colored," and we know better than to argue with her.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 1998. R, for language and some sexuality. A Deborah Schindler production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Producer Deborah Schindler. Executive producers Terry McMillan, Ron Bass, Jennifer Ogden. Screenplay McMillan & Ron Bass, based on the novel by McMillan. Cinematographer Jeffrey Jur. Editor George Bowers. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Michel Colombier. Production design Chester Kaczenski. Art director Mark Dabe. Set decorator Judi Giovanni. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. Angela Bassett as Stella. Taye Diggs as Winston. Regina King as Vanessa. Whoopi Goldberg as Delilah. Suzzanne Douglas as Angela. Michael J. Pagan as Quincy.