If it's true that your ears burn when they're talking about you somewhere, then the next several weeks will see a plague of fiery lobes visited upon the male side of the gender gulf.
And maybe the ears won't be the only things that sting!
Like, ouch! The film version of Terry McMillan's "Waiting to
Exhale" turns out to be colossally entertaining but darkly bitter. McMillan's chronicle of four middle-class African-American women and their hunt for a few good men is angry, corrosive and nasty. Just about every man in it is a wastrel, a cheater, a liar, a self-deluder, and the bad news is spread generously through the income and class structure. America, according to McMillan, doesn't suffer a bastard shortage. If only it weren't so darned amusing, it would be pretty tough to get through.
The title phrase comes from that little intake of breath a woman feels when she meets a new man and he begins to look promising. As you check him out further, you suck in that air even harder, and the better he looks, the more your hopes rise, the harder you hold it in. You know that only if he turns out to be not a man but The Man will you be able to exhale with pleasure. "Waiting to Exhale" takes place in that zone of compressed tension, and the news isn't good: They're still holding it.
The four are friends who get together periodically over a long year that is more a tour of combat in the Vietnam War between men and women than it is normal life. They love and trust and help each other and know, instinctively, that their emotion is purer than any they'll get from the guys.
The four include a sassy, smart Whitney Houston as a television producer hung up on a married man, Angela Bassett as a prosperous housewife who gets the bad news from hubby as she dresses for New Year's Eve, Loretta Devine as a hair salon owner who puts too much faith in her ex-husband, and Lela Rochon as an ad exec attracted to the most dangerous of fellows.
Some scenes pop out at you like punches in the face. When Bassett's Bernadine, in a cloud of innocence and good faith, is getting ready to leave with her husband (Michael Beach) for a New Year's Eve party, he announces: "She shouldn't be alone tonight," and it takes a second or two for her to realize he's talking about his mistress and that she will no longer be his mistress but has just been promoted.
A few days after he's gone, Bernadine loads up his BMW with his gorgeous clothes and sets them aflame. The fire in the opulent automobile represents the pure rage that is at the center of comfortable lives and is the essence of "Waiting to Exhale." The movie stays with Bernadine as she tries to rebuild her life and learn to trust and love again.
Whitney Houston's tale is nearly as powerful as Bassett's. As Savannah, she's just moved to Phoenix from Denver, and soon enough she's taking up with the man she's secretly been in love with all these years. One problem: He's married. "Oh," he keeps saying, "it's over between my wife and I, I just want to hang around a little longer for my daughter's benefit." These words have probably been uttered in history close to a billion times, but poor Savannah, as smart as she is, believes them the billionth-and-first time, too. Girl, wise up.
Lela Rochon's Robin manages to conjure the movie's most pitiful moment. This is the sad yet furious comedy of male delusion, painful to watch yet irresistibly hilarious. She's usually drawn to street hustlers and bad boys, but one time she tries to mend her ways and goes with another executive (Wendell Pierce) in her ad agency. He's, uh, a bit large, and let's just say he hasn't ordered his Ab Isolator from Home Shopping Network yet. And his attempts at lovemaking are, shall we say, a bit on the comically pitiful side. But that's all right; it's over so fast she hardly notices. I felt unclean laughing at a fellow man so harshly, but laugh I did.
Finally, there's Loretta Devine's Gloria. A bit older than the others, and lacking the jet-set jobs or income, she's pinned her hopes on the occasional return of her ex-husband. But he turns out to be an illusion, too. In fact, the exposure of illusion is the subtext of "Waiting to Exhale." It seems to suggest that nearly the whole male population is an illusion.
Still, screenwriters McMillan and Ron Bass do provide glimmers of hope. The year isn't entirely lost, as both Bernadine and Gloria meet decent men (Wesley Snipes in an unbilled appearance, and Gregory Hines), neither of whom is on the hustle. Love, McMillan seems to say, is there if you work like hell and are lucky as all get-out.
The movie is smooth and sleek; it's been truncated somewhat by execs desperate to keep it under two hours, so that now and then a story line seems to peter out rather than end; and sometimes it loses track of one or another of its major characters for too long a time. But it's an enchantment: bitter yet mesmerizing and marginally hopeful.
'Waiting to Exhale'
Starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon
Directed by Forest Whitaker
Released by Twentieth Century Fox
Rated R (nudity, profanity, sexual situations)