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The Best Laid Plans

You have to love the way Terry McMillan does literary research. On a spur-of-the-moment vacation trip to Jamaica, the author of Disappearing Acts and Waiting to Exhale says, she indulged in a mad, revitalizing fling with a man twenty years younger. Despite the rum punches and the hot and heavy, the creative wheels never stopped spinning: The Jackie Collins of black pop fiction parlayed the affair into her fourth novel, and it has now been recycled again as her second movie, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, starring Angela Bassett as the romantic adventurer.

Does this mean every woman with an English degree and a word processor can play Mrs. Robinson down in the Caribbean, take some notes in the morning and write the whole thing off on her tax return? Probably not. But McMillan's exercise in kiss-and-tell--highly fictionalized on page and screen, she says--proved a major career opportunity for her. Let's hope she sent champagne to the travel agent. And to the momentary object of her affections.

The movie's heroine, Stella Payne, is another of those African-American fantasy figures that could never have reached the screen ten years ago. At forty, Stella's a hotshot money market analyst with a killer wardrobe. She's got a super-glamorous house overlooking the Pacific in Marin County, a gold Mercedes in the garage and a paid-up account at Bergdorf's. She jogs every morning. She wields power with confidence and still has time to dish the dirt while luxuriating behind a mask of blue mud at a San Francisco spa as grand as the Taj Mahal.

She is, in short, a contemporary update on the sleek, self-assured career women Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall played in those sophisticated romps of the Forties and Fifties.

So, what's the problem? As McMillan and co-screenwriter Don Bass (My Best Friend's Wedding) would have it, Stella's got Nineties disease: She's a single-minded workaholic who has forgotten how to have a good time and a single mother with a bright eleven-year-old (Michael J. Pagan) to tend. Superficially, the woman has everything, but she's secretly unfulfilled and lonely.

Solution? On impulse, Stella and her witty best friend, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), jet down to gorgeous Ocho Rios for a little R&R. Before you can say "Dudley Moore boffs Bo Derek," our heroine finds herself drawn to a local hunk who introduces himself, none too shyly, as Winston Shakespeare. This does not signal a discussion of iambic pentameter. Once Stella gets over her middle-aged anxieties and hesitations--a reggae-fired pajama party at which most of the dancers discard their pajama tops probably helps--she's enthusiastically coupling with the stud (played by newcomer Taye Diggs) who's just a few school grades ahead of her son.

Hey, Winston is planning on medical school, isn't he? So go ahead, girl: Toss all three coins in the fountain and see how long your underwear stays on.

The movie never makes clear why Winston (whose well-off parents live nearby) happens to be staying at Stella's hotel or what he sees in a woman twice his age. But that does nothing to slow down McMillan's breakneck sexual fantasy, which is really the tale of the older woman winning one last trophy for the showcase of her success.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back talks a lot about love and the thorny problems of May-December love and the way love struggles to endure. But it's not very good at convincing us of such high priorities. It seems a lot more interested in baring flesh, running a fashion show (Bassett's scores of costume changes run the gamut from bikinis to sarongs to business suits), merchandising a soundtrack (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) and selling the audience on the notion that a mature woman in command of all her faculties and a fat bank account can do whatever the hell she wants with her newfound boytoy, including reverting to giggling adolescence. Despite the protests of a disapproving sister and the rest of the world.

And the eleven-year-old son? The movie blows off that troublesome issue as if it didn't exist: Mom gets a new squeeze; little Quincy gets a playmate.

Meanwhile, Bassett puts in a performance that is by turns overly guarded and overtly childish, decorated all the way through with an array of pouts, smirks and frowns. This is supposed to be the revelation of a woman emancipated by passion, but it looks and feels bogus. Certainly, it lacks the emotional fire of Bassett's breakout role as Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It? or her beautifully detailed work in the first (and far superior) McMillan adaptation, Waiting to Exhale, in which she had to share the limelight with Whitney Houston and two other female co-stars.

But Bassett's inconsistencies probably have more to do with her rookie director, Kevin Rodney Sullivan, than they do with her: Whether composing a closeup or confirming character, Sullivan's definitely a beginner. He is pretty good at adding raunchy touches--including the aforementioned topless dance party and a sex-in-the-shower scene that affords an ample view of young Diggs's athletic butt. ("Turn around!" came the call from the audience.) And Sullivan's no stranger to schmaltz, either: He plays Whoopi's New York deathbed scene (Delilah's got cancer, we're surprised to learn) to a fare-thee-well, then has Stella spout a eulogy calculated to open every tear duct in the balcony.

The end? Nope. The movie still has forty minutes to run and ten more traumas to plow through.

If McMillan knows what's good for her, maybe she'll skip the tropics this year and get back to the four walls of her writing room. She probably won't get laid in there, but the muse might decide to drop by.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Screenplay by Terry McMillan and Ron Bass, from a novel by Terry McMillan. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. With Angela Bassett, Taye Diggs and Whoopi Goldberg.

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