First the good news: Despite this summer's rash of double entendres, the title of the high school comedy/Gen-X nostalgia flick The Wood is not a dirty joke. The name's as earnest and literal as the film itself and simply marks the setting as Inglewood, California, the Los Angeles 'burb best known for gang wars and airport traffic. Here "the wood" plays as the bleakly anonymous, sunny suburban backdrop for lighthearted nostalgia-waxing by three aging twentysomethings on the day of a best friend's wedding. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa grew up on this turf and knows the feel and the language, but the film unspools erratically without ever hitting an emotional or comedic stride.
What happens is this: The groom, perpetual playa Roland (Taye Diggs, from Go) has gone missing, leaving a house full of agitated mothers and bridesmaids; his best friends Slim (Richard T. Jones) and Big Mike (Omar Epps) have to track him down, which is quickly accomplished, and then whip him into ceremony shape. This takes forever, or at least a couple of hours, since everywhere the three go--the convenience store, the laundromat, the pizza place--they are inspired by another "Hey, you remember when we..." flashback, another tale of coming up in "the wood" during the '80s, the early days of rap music and the Crips and Bloods. There's plenty of mellow R&B on the soundtrack and only a taste of era hip-hop (Biz Markie, anyone?), but Famuyiwa nails the mood, fashion and lingo and playfully picks at the tension and violence, playing it cool and goofy, using an Eazy-E-looking Crip thug as comic relief. (He has the bright idea of a rap album devoted to smoking dope, but dismisses it--it'll never sell.)
There is, of course, something heartwarming and fun about three great-looking guys sitting in a pizza place slapping hands and throwing their heads back, howling about what they did back in the day. But here it's an image, a moment, a screen-captured snapshot, and the script offers nothing to back it up--only some occasionally funny dead-on banter and drawn-out junior-high anecdotes (That time the condom broke! That time we paid you a dollar to grab that girl's booty!). The complete lack of momentum or meaning is disappointing, because you really want to like these guys. Epps, Diggs and Jones are such a handsome trio and spend most of the film in snappy tuxedos (and completely naked in one scene). But once you get past that, the meat of the moment--We're grown men here. Now what?--is ignored.
The Wood wants to be a younger, blacker Diner, but it fails to capture the pathos and friction of that time when young men start drifting apart, when so-called real life begins. Roland's in turmoil about it, drunk, tracking down his old girlfriend--but we never know why. The constant, tedious flashbacks illuminate nothing in the present, and even though Roland is the plot's linchpin, he's barely in this. By the end, we learn nothing of him, his wife or their relationship. Most of the flashbacks--and the movie itself--tell the tale of Young Big Mike (Sean Nelson) wooing his high school girlfriend (Malinda Williams); that's mixed with high school sex antics and witty bored-teen banter. A few scenes turn embarrassing life moments into mild comedy, covering some of the same ground as the more skillful and focused American Pie, but the levels of heart and raunch never even out, and the whole thing feels flat from one end to the other.
It's too bad, really. Epps has an inviting mug and begins by delivering the tale in a homespun let-me-tell-ya-'bout-it manner. The problem is, it's not his story. Or shouldn't be. Despite Famuyiwa's mastery of local dialect and humor, he delivers a linear and derivative script, and scenes drag on and on. And on. Some of the banter is perfect, though, and a convenience-store speech on the benefits of Tic-Tacs over larger mints is fairly clever, though, again, it takes us nowhere.
The movie comes from the burgeoning MTV Films, which until now has had a fair track record, with either solid if not stellar high-spirited manifestos on youth (Varsity Blues, Election) or stuff that's at least loud and ambitiously awful (200 Cigarettes, Dead Man on Campus). What's surprising about a perfectly nice, unremarkable effort like The Wood is that it ends up being the worst thing a movie, especially an MTV movie, can be: boring.
Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. Starring Omar Epps, Richard T. Jones, Taye Diggs, Sean Nelson and Malinda Williams.
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