About an hour into "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," Stella (Angela Bassett) and her 20-year-old lover, Winston (Taye Diggs), walk out of a multiplex and run into Stella's snooty sister Angela (Suzzanne Douglas). Angela, her husband and another upper-middle-class couple have just seen a picture that befits their station in life, something suitably adult and tasteful, and she's rhapsodizing about how beautiful it was, how sad, and didn't Stella jeest lo-o-ove it? Actually, Stella tells her, she and Winston were seeing a low-brow comedy playing on another screen. Appalled, her sister asks, "Stella, how could you?"
Nobody has actually asked me, "How could you?" when I've told them that I had a ball at "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and at "Dance With Me." But I've seen the surprise, maybe even the suspicion, that my response provokes. Neither "Stella" nor "Dance With Me" is the sort of picture that "serious" critics or moviegoers are supposed to occupy themselves with. They're too Hollywood, too blatantly commercial. The type of picture that critics and discerning moviegoers are supposed to get behind is something like Brad Anderson's indie comedy "Next Stop, Wonderland." Quirky and "realistic" in a way that's meant to seem more honest than Hollywood gloss, "Next Stop, Wonderland" has, accordingly, received glowing reviews. And yet it's terrible, a mix of warmed-over urban whimsy and life-lesson-style "observations." "Wonderland" is emblematic of how indie filmmakers have eschewed the slickness of Hollywood without finding anything as satisfying to replace it.
Part of the basic appeal of movies, the chance to indulge our daydreams of luxury and romance and glamour, is also one of the things that has long caused "educated" moviegoers to look down on the mass audience. But surrendering to those fantasies for a few hours isn't the same thing as confusing them with reality. "Stella" and "Dance With Me" are loaded with the sort of clichis and melodrama that indie movies have gone out of their way to avoid. But they've been put together with a mixture of confidence and eagerness to please that keeps them lively and engaging. They're not embarrassed about polishing up the old conventions, and audiences don't appear to be embarrassed about responding to them.
All three of these movies are powered by the appeal of the female stars -- Angela Bassett in "Stella," Vanessa L. Williams in "Dance With Me" and Hope Davis in "Next Stop, Wonderland." Davis' appeal is different from that of the other two, both of whom are born movie stars and just as exotic as movie stars have always seemed. Davis is a heightened version of someone you might already know. I'd wager money that everyone in their 30s has a friend not too different from Erin, the nurse she plays in "Wonderland," someone torn between her desire for a lover and her unwillingness to change her life to accommodate one. Erin is beginning to learn how to savor her loneliness, and that both scares and attracts her. You'd have to be a hermit to see Davis here and not understand why she strikes a chord in audiences. Anyone who can look perfectly comfortable dining out with only a book for company is some sort of new archetypal heroine. Davis spends much of the movie reacting, primarily to the guys who answer the personal ad Erin's meddling mother (Holland Taylor) has placed for her. She's so good at getting the audience on her wavelength that you can tell who's not going to make the cut just by the way she raises her chin or subtly arches an eyebrow. Davis manages to be both prickly and pliable here, a romantic heroine with no time for the bullshit of romance and no intention of dumbing herself down for anything.
But good as Davis is, she'd really shine if Anderson weren't so style-phobic. Like too many young filmmakers, Anderson seems to equate honesty with choppy editing, bad lighting (so harsh in a couple of shots you can see the pancake on Davis' face) and herky-jerky camera movements. And what's the reward for enduring this? A picture that doesn't even rise to the cleverness of a good sitcom. Indie cachet has gone a long way to help movies that are utterly conventional. (Would art-house audiences have made a hit out of an entertaining sudser like "Sliding Doors" if it were an American studio film?) And while indie movies have also helped unconventional actors -- people like Martin Donovan, Steve Buscemi, Parker Posey, Kevin Corrigan, Chris Eigeman -- there are actors indie movies aren't helping at all. Sure, Davis runs the risk of getting smoothed down in Hollywood movies, but could they be worse than "Wonderland" or "The Daytrippers" or "The Myth of Fingerprints"? Gems are gems no matter where they are, but cheap settings never enhance them.
Perhaps the nicest thing about "Dance With Me" is that, for all its blunders, it takes care to show off its leads, Vanessa L. Williams and the Latin American music star Chayanne. When their two sets of doe eyes meet -- his dark and bedroomy, hers bright and sparkly -- you know they're a match. "Dance With Me" has a hokey setup (he's a Cuban immigrant who can dance only when he feels the music; she's a dance instructor who can only follow the steps) that pays off in the dance sequences.When Chayanne leads Williams out on the floor at a salsa club, the scene is built around her responses as her nervousness gives way to delight. By the time they're moving around the club, switching from partner to partner, the combination of the dancing and the music has hit an exhilarating pitch.
Dancing has become so rare in the movies that the pleasure of the dance sequences isn't much diminished by director Randa Haines' clumsiness (or the silliness of the rest of the movie). Jane Krakowski (of "Ally McBeal," and a veteran of Broadway musicals) gets to dance a duet with Chayanne that's an airy delight. When he lifts her, it looks so effortless he might simply be guiding her as she levitates into the air. And the big climax -- an international dance competition in Las Vegas -- has built-in suspense: Can Williams and her partner combine the fieriness of Latin dancing with the precision required in professional competition? The dancing in this sequence (Williams is partnered by Rick Venezuela, one of the film's assistant choreographers) is both rigidly controlled and knockabout passionate, and it's thrilling to watch.
"Dance With Me" is part of a tradition of pictures that Hollywood has all but abandoned: the casual vehicle designed to bring out the personalities of performers who aren't straight actors. Movies should make a place for personalities as well as actors. Chayanne makes me think that there are probably dozens of singers and dancers and rappers (maybe even some athletes) who could be wonderful in the right part. He turns out to have a charming screen presence -- good-looking, good-natured and sexy without any preening or swagger. When Williams catches sight of his eyes batting dreamily at her from the sidelines of the dance floor, it's the purest seduction. And Williams, in addition to being one of the most beautiful women in movies, gets to show that she's a sensational dancer, and she keeps suggesting she's more of an actress than she's gotten a chance to show. Williams has a way of investing the blandest lines with edge and insinuation that gives her character real backbone. Yet she gives herself over to the movie's melodrama, too. She gets to suffer and triumph in the climax, as she dances with her sleazy ex while dreaming of Chayanne. It's a big, juicy diva's moment, and Williams seizes it for everything it's worth.
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (adapted from Terry McMillan's novel by McMillan and Ron Bass) is basically an updated, upbeat version of '40s women's weepers. Whoopi Goldberg as Bassett's best friend and the wonderful Regina King as her sister (not the snooty one) who can't stop gossiping even when a patient is being loaded into the back of her ambulance, are hilarious in the wisecracking-broad roles that once would have been played by Helen Broderick or Eve Arden or Joan Blondell. No one is likely to mistake Bassett for Joan Crawford or Susan Hayward, though. She's not into noble suffering, or sacrifice, thank God.
"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (the title plays off the same salacious double-entendre Madonna made with "Into the Groove") is almost shamefully enjoyable and satisfying because it has no time for the moralism that dogged the women's movies of the past, and continues to dog too many romantic fantasies today. The movie takes its cue from Bassett's no-nonsense sexiness. Stella meets young Winston on an impulsive Jamaican vacation and wastes no time falling into bed with him. And when he moves to San Francisco to be with her, she tells anyone and everyone who criticizes her that's it's none of their business. It's also refreshing that being a mom doesn't cancel out Stella's sexuality. (Her relationship with her pre-adolescent son is one of the nicest details of the movie.) In "Stella," sex and food and clothes and family life have all been given a sensuous comfort.
"Stella" is, unapologetically, a woman's sex fantasy where the sex appeal comes as much from the perks of Stella's yummy lifestyle as it does from Taye Diggs' butt (held in an utterly gratuitous nude shot for the women in the audience to drool over). Everything here -- clothes, furniture, tropical vacations -- looks lush and expensive. It's too bad that director Kevin Rodney Sullivan's idea of classiness seems to have come from commercials, though conspicuous consumption is the key to the movie's appeal. There's been some tut-tutting over the materialism of the black women's movies, which strikes me as well-intentioned condescension. It's as if years of struggle for basic human rights should have made black people above all that. But why shouldn't black audiences get to enjoy the fantasies of luxurious living that have been aimed at white audiences for years?
It's a drag that Stella's snooty sister has been given a white husband as a sign of her snobbishness. But "Stella" is a fantasy open to all comers. There's no ax-grinding going on. It's so easy to slip into because on a very basic level, it's so familiar. Years of movies have taught us to enjoy the sort of plush daydreams it specializes in.
Both "Stella" and "Dance With Me" show that there's still plenty of juice in star power and in old-movie glamour. And the fact that they find that glamour in black and Latino faces is cause for celebration. Neither one deserves mention in the same breath with the top-notch entertainments of the summer, "Out of Sight," "The Mask of Zorro" and "Ever After." But when you leave them, you know you've been to the movies.