In some respects, there's a lot of familiarity attached to "The Best Man," Malcolm Lee's directorial debut.
For one thing, it's the second film in three months to be centered on an African-American wedding, using flashbacks and with Taye Diggs, as he was in "The Wood," cast in a central role.
And Malcolm, who shares a last name and career with his older cousin Spike, borrows from his famous relative for scenes that will strike a chord of deja vu with filmgoers.
But "The Best Man" is a markedly more sophisticated piece of filmmaking than "The Wood" and is touched with a sweetness and a sense of humanity that has been missing from just about everything Spike Lee has done recently this side of "Crooklyn."
To be certain, Malcolm Lee, who directs from his own script, plows no new ground here. The predictable themes of fear of commitment, betrayal and maintaining a sense of self within the context of a relationship can all be checked off on the list of things to be covered.
However, Lee comes at the topics refreshingly, taking the African-American male, one of the least explored groups in film, and placing him under a microscope, not for judgment, but for observation.
Just as "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" opened the curtain to the world of black women for filmgoers of all stripes, Lee invites the audience in to meet the black man at work, play and in serious thought about his place in the universe. He smartly turns the war council scene from "Jungle Fever," where a group of women air their grievances about men, around to let men examine their successes and failures.
And without clubbing the audience with Big Lessons to Be Learned, Lee, through situations both realistic and universal, ventures smoothly into this relatively new film territory. He is aided by some of the smartest use of music to advance and accentuate a plot heard in recent films.
The acting in "The Best Man" is a cut above, too. Diggs, whose film introduction came as the vehicle by which Stella got her groove, continues to broaden and deepen as an actor, here portraying an author whose first novel is the pseudo-autobiographical story of a group of college friends, which threatens to wreak havoc upon the wedding of one of them.
Nia Long, as a career-obsessed producer, brings a vulnerability and a winsome quality to the part of the girl who got away from Diggs. Their "will they, won't they" dilemma is a bit of a contrivance but not enough to slow "The Best Man" down.
'The Best Man'
Starring Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Monica Calhoun, Harold Perrineau, Sanaa Lathan
Directed by Malcolm Lee
Released by Universal
Rated R (for language, sexual themes)
Running time 110 minutes
Sun score ***