The Next Best Thing 

The Next Best Thing is the kind of film that, if it had been a TV movie of the week, would justify its overall lack of impression. Director John Schlesinger (Cold Comfort Farm), working from a script by Tom Ropelewski (Look Who's Talking Now), has made lightweight and utterly forgettable entertainment that typifies the smaller screen. Likable characters saying clever things and having glamorous crises is a popular formula.

Robert is a landscaper/gardener; Abbie is a yoga instructor. Robert (Rupert Everett, An Ideal Husband) is also gay. Abbie (Madonna, Evita), on the rebound from her last dead-end relationship, hears her biological clock ticking. So when one night of drunken dancing in '30s costumes and breaking lamps (best not to ask) turns into Abbie discovering she's pregnant, the two decide they will raise the child together. They, of course, also decide they'll just wait until "later" to settle the difficult questions that their child will eventually ask, such as why they sleep in separate rooms.

Of course, not everything can glide along perfectly in Abbie and Robert's world in sunny California. Robert, a loving parent who loses his boyfriend because of his devotion to young Sam, sees a threat in Abbie's new boyfriend, Ben Cooper (Benjamin Bratt from TV's Law & Order), who wants to marry Abbie and move her and Sam to New York. Before you can say Hollow Reed-meets-Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert has hired a lawyer (Illeana Douglas) to protect his parental rights. Yeah, things like Sam's growing from a newborn to a 5-year-old (because they can talk) move along pretty quickly, but not quickly enough. Neither character is all that interesting to begin with, a fact not helped by the presence of an average child actor (Malcolm Strampf). A string of well-meaning actors hovers in the background, supplying weak chatter that only increases our awareness of how one-dimensional and flat is every character relationship.

It's either a blessing or a curse that Schlesinger and Ropelewski give almost no exposition for Abbie or Robert. Anything about the characters is given on a need-to-know basis, and even then, the supplied information has absolutely no importance to the story. Schlesinger offers an equally weak link to the characters' apparently nonexistent pasts when he reintroduces Abbie's former lover as Sam's true biological father. Save your groans, this isn't giving away anything that a conscious audience won't guess. Schlesinger seems to realize how thin the script is. He tries everything from stridently delivered attempts at one-liners on postnuclear parenting to mild melodrama. Most of the movie consists of languid shots of Madonna's arms, Rupert's abs, the really great clothes they wear, the really great houses they live in, and the really vacant friends who do absolutely nothing but provide moving background should all else prove too static.

Too, there's the oblique nod to living with AIDS, in the character played by Neil Patrick Harris. Earlier in the film, Robert and Abbie attend the funeral of Harris' lover, who we gather from the dry sarcasm of one character has parents who acknowledge only that he died from pneumonia, not the illness that preceded it. Knowing that their dead friend wanted to be cremated and to have his friends sing the Don McLean song "American Pie" (rendered by Madonna on the soundtrack), Robert breaks into the first verse; Abbie and his friends follow suit to the family's obvious disapproval. The point of the scene seems to be that the family we adopt has more intimacy and understanding than the one to which we're born, but the script doesn't do more than bounce this idea off the wall and leave it there.

Considering how little conflict arises, how little tension is used, and how not really involved we are in the story, we're gratified that Abbie and Robert come to their senses. We're happy that they reach an adult decision to share custody of Sam. The next best thing would have been a more involving story for two hours. (PG-13) Rating: 2

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