Reviewed by Michael Dequina
Film genres don't come more basic and predictable than the love story and the sports movie. Love story: soulmates run into countless, sometimes trivial, obstacles en route to "happily ever after"; sports movie: athletes must overcome physical and (mostly) mental hurdles to achieve their crowning glory. As one can glean from its no-frills title, Love & Basketball doesn't break much, if any, new ground within its genres, but writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood approaches the formula task with such intelligence and sincerity that it's petty to complain.
Thanks to the stratosphere-level alley-oops and street aesthetic popularized by the cornrows, baggy shorts, and B-boy stance of Allen Iverson, the ballet of hoopdom is best scored by today's R&B and hip-hop artists. So it's only appropriate that the soundtrack to the Spike Lee-produced film "Love and Basketball" includes old and new jams that fit the tale's urban landscape. Loverman Donell Jones bounds through the Rahsaan Patterson-penned "I''ll Go." The super-group Lucy Pearl, which consists of Tony Toni Ton’'s Raphael Saadiq, En Vogue's Dawn Robinson, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, makes a splash with the buoyant "Dance Tonight." Angie Stone puts a gospel spin on her remake of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," and newcomer Bilal mines the falsetto highs of Prince and D'Angelo on "Soul Sista." These new gems share time with hip classics -- Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing," Al Green's "Love and Happiness," Rob Base's "It Takes Two," and Guy's "I Like" -- that lend a nostalgic yet progressive appeal to the album. Excuse the rim-rocking analogy, but LOVE AND BASKETBALL scores in more ways than one. Like Shaq lighting up a triple-double at the Forum -- it's fantastic! Brett Johnson
The most refreshing wrinkle to Love & Basketball is its straightforward treatment of women's sports, a subject that is rarely covered without a special angle. The female athlete here is Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan), a naturally gifted basketball player who continues to grow and mature in her ability as she works her way up from the high school ranks to the college ranks. Following the same path, albeit in a more flamboyant fashion, is her longtime neighbor Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), son of NBA journeyman Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert) and a shooting star in his own right.
Love & Basketball is the story of two passions: Monica and Quincy's passion for the game and also their passion for each other. Prince-Bythewood comes up with an ingenious way of melding these two through the film's structure: like a basketball game, the film--and, thus, the development of their relationship--is broken down into four quarters The two meet as 11-year-olds (played by Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman, respectively) in the first quarter (set in 1981), and after some typical boy-girl hostility, they grow to become friends. The second quarter covers the pair's (now played by Lathan and Epps) senior year in high school, when they become a couple. The third quarter traces their turbulent freshman year at USC, when their shared passions end up conflicting with each other, setting the stage for the 1993-set fourth quarter, which catches up with the two after college.
The scope of the film is ambitious--it also touches on their less-than-smooth relationships with their parents, not to mention the rocky relationship between Quincy's mom (Debbi Morgan) and dad--but Prince-Bythewood keeps the focus simple. All told, Love &Basketball is nothing more than the story of two people who love each other--and I mean people, not just characters. Monica and Quincy are multi-dimensional people, with their own individual strengths, weaknesses, and dreams. In an average movie, the script would have to manufacture complications to pull them apart, but the problems the two face are firmly rooted in who they are.. It could be said that the biggest obstacle in their relationship is the one big obstacle faced by couples in real life: each other's fundamental imperfection as human beings.
Adding immeasurably to the authenticity of the film--both the sports story and the romance--are Epps and especially Lathan. Epps again proves to be a consistently solid performer; he's charismatic, likable, and more than up to the role's athletic requirements. The revelation here is Lathan, whose most high-profile role to date had been as Taye Diggs' love interest in The Best Man. Lathan is extremely convincing during Monica's many hoops scenes--an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact she could not ball worth a damn when she was initially cast. Her most glorious accomplishment, however, is her heartfelt dramatic performance. Monica carries the greatest emotional weight in the film, and Lathan brings the role natural depth and nuance. Even when the formula mechanics of the film start to show, Lathan lends the proceedings a crucial air of reality; she obviously believes in the material, and the audience finds no difficulty in following suit. A particularly overwrought line has Monica telling Quincy she'll play a one-on-one game for his heart, but Lathan makes it sound like the most natural thing anyone can say at that moment.
Love & Basketball isn't the most exciting of titles, but it's as honest a title as one is likely to find gracing a multiplex marquee. The film indeed has a lot of love, a lot of basketball, and it delivers all the expected payoffs at all the expected moments. While that fact may turn off people looking for something beyond the formula, I'd wager that for most audiences, all that Love & Basketball has to offer will more than satisfy.
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