THE NEXT BEST THING: A glossy, ham-fisted, non-romance (2000 in Film #9)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 3rd, John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing

It is fair to say that the first weekend in March of 2000 was a slim one in terms of new releases, which accounts for why John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing was both the most profitable movie and at the same time failed to ultimately make a profit, just falling shy of recouping its modest budget.

Everyone involved almost certainly imagined it would do better. Madonna was headlining as Abby, a New Age yoga instructor in sunny California who falls in love with her gay best friend Robert, played by Rupert Everett—basking in the glow of success in My Best Friend’s Wedding, where he essentially played the same kind of character. It must have seemed like box office alchemy, indeed Madonna’s previous film Evita probably remains her most successful. Throw in one of the most celebrated transatlantic directors of the 60’s & 70’s in Schlesinger and what we should have ended up with was a charming, star-led romantic comedy. What we ended up with was a bizarre, mawkish, messy comedy that veers wildly into a dramatic final act lifted from an entirely different movie.

The Next Best Thing is, to put it mildly, bad filmmaking. The script, written by Tom Ropelewski as an original screenplay called The Red Curtain originally meant to star Richard Dreyfuss & Helen Hunt—proof positive there was a better film lurking underneath somewhere—that eventually was mangled through the Hollywood threshing machine, plonked into the lap of Madonna, and presumably transformed into the strange, worthy beast we ended up getting. Quite what possessed Schlesinger to get on board we will never know – it’s even more tragic that this was the final film he directed before his death in 2003. It’s about as flaccid and ignominious an end the director of Midnight Cowboy or Billy Liar could have had to his career. Nothing, genuinely *nothing*, about this film works in any respect. It is really quite remarkable from that perspective.

The Next Best Thing is also evidence that while Hollywood had an eye on the progressive, liberal structures that are coming to define it twenty years on, its tin ear for how to achieve them was still strong.

The whole film is balanced on a typical Hollywood high-concept that must have appealed to studio executives: what if a straight woman and a gay man who were best friends had sex, had a baby, and were forced to figure out how to raise it?

That’s the core of The Next Best Thing, this parental dichotomy at the heart of the story, released at a time Western society was just starting to get their head around legalised gay marriage, same sex relationships and particularly same sex families raising children in what would have otherwise been a hetero-normative environment. Schlesinger’s film tries to have its cake and eat it, in that regard, by framing a traditional male/female raising children story through the prism of a gay father with a straight mother, presented in the first half as a romantic, comedic set up. I’ll say that for The Next Best Thing – you genuinely might be surprised by where it ends up in the final act. Just not in a good way.

Schlesinger’s film is so painful because it desperately believes it is far more liberal, progressive and open-minded than it actually is. Everett’s Robert is a good father to little Sam (or Sammy, as Madonna’s Abby keeps calling him, to the point even Robert asks “why?” in the script), but the film constantly is reminding you this is *in spite* of him being gay. Everett, while naturally camp & a bit posh (it’s never really explained why he’s not living in Shoreditch as opposed to LA), is presented as a ‘normal’ father and quasi-husband, who is in some way sexually attracted to Madonna, but there is also a scene early on where a pre-Alias Michael Vartan (playing Abby’s selfish ex-boyfriend Kevin) calls him a “faggot” numerous times and Everett, glammed up, Divine’s his way into a deliberately heterosexual music studio to wind up and embarrass Kevin pretending to be his boyfriend. The suggestion is simple – we want you to see Robert as a normal, traditional guy, but we are still going to point and laugh at every gay stereotype in the book. “I know what a faggot is. That it what my dad calls someone who cuts him off in traffic” a child at one point innocently says. Funny, huh?

There is also the difficult issue in the fact Abby and Robert had sex in the first place. The Next Best Thing seems to suggest this happened because Abby is played by Madonna, and who isn’t going to want to sleep with Madonna? Every opportunity to point out she is “hot” or “sexy” or has a “great body” is taken, almost as if Madonna’s therapist is writing the script as a self-help reminder the ageing music superstar still has it. Madonna is a baffling choice for this role anyway, especially given where it all ends up; a New Age, hippy yoga instructor on the one hand, but a woman who on the other very quickly elects to shack up with Benjamin Bratt’s (another former My Best Friend’s Wedding alumni ported in) very traditional heterosexual guy, despite the fact the entire first half of the film has been leading you to believe the *point* of The Next Best Thing is that Abby & Robert will end up together and raise their little boy.

Would the message of Everett’s ‘gayness’ essentially being written off have been better? Not necessarily. But saints above, it would likely have been far more palatable than turning Madonna into the bad guy, as Schlesinger’s film bizarrely left turns into a court drama custody battle for the final act! Madonna as the kooky friend who falls for a gay man? Just about can buy it. Madonna as the mother who lies about the gay man being the boy’s biological father for *years* and then attempts to break them apart so she can shack up nicely with her straight, boring guy? Uhhh…

In fact, you almost wonder what possessed Madonna to play this part. Perhaps she believed, as I suspect everyone did, that they had another My Best Friend’s Wedding on their hands here. My Best Gay Friend’s Son from a One Night Stand, perhaps. Arguably, everyone involved wanted a piece of that feelgood romantic comedy vibe, also buoyed by the success in 1999 for Julia Roberts again in Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, both of which did well commercially. Did she see herself in the same mould? Take away the fact her acting is so atrocious in this film it makes her cringeworthy cameo in James Bond film Die Another Day seem Best Supporting Actress worthy in comparison. Madge simply lacks either the chemistry with Everett or the natural charm of Roberts from those films. Everett is better, channeling no doubt his own frustrations as a homosexual man into a character who is frustrated and stymied by prejudices both socially and via the legal system, but he’s hamstrung with some awful direlogue. “Are you gay, or are you just acting gay?” Bratt’s Ben (so boring they just named him after the actor) asks at one point. “Well, that depends, are you interested are are you just acting interested?” Robert replies. That’s the level we’re at here, guys.

You almost feel sorry for The Next Best Thing in some respect because at times you feel like it’s heart is in the right place. Lynn Redgrave’s mother to Robert is genuinely open and accepting about his homosexuality and it making him nevertheless a suitable role model for a child, and Josef Sommer’s initially old homophobic father comes around too. The dynamic between Robert & his son is genuinely quite natural and Schlesinger’s film is very much on his side as a gay man being judged as a suitable parent based solely on what is considered by society a promiscuous and unnatural sexual proclivity. The film is genuinely trying to challenge those preconceptions but it does so in such a Hollywood, turn of the 21st century, glossy, mawkish and hamfisted way, by the time Kevin rocks up at the end not to save the day but actually reinforce Robert’s own segregation as part of the traditional parental unit, you’ll just be left shaking your head at how badly thought out the entire endeavour is. It’s a drama about gay life and experience, and how that intersects with modern relationships, written by presumably the most heterosexual people you can imagine.

Audiences voted with their feet too, staying largely away from The Next Best Thing in their droves. Unlike Notting Hill or My Best Friend’s Wedding, it has not echoed through the years as symbolic of charming romantic comedies. Aside from the sad full stop on the career of John Schlesinger—who, trust me, was better than this—the next best thing you could do is forget this film ever existed.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

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