You'd be hard-pressed to find a modern-day couple as impossibly glamorous as Rupert Everett and Madonna; their casting as common folk in the gay-parenting drama The Next Best Thing
is just one of the film's myriad problems. (One thing we never needed to see was these two pushing grocery carts in a supermarket. It's just unnatural.) Best friends in sun-dappled L.A. (he's a landscaper, she's a yoga instructor), Abbie (Madonna) and Robert (Everett) fall into an amorous embrace on a fateful Fourth of July after a few too many martinis. Robert's gay, which complicates things; even more complicating is Abbie's confession a few weeks later that she's with child. Six years later, Robert, Abbie, and their son Sam are all living together peacefully and happily--that is, until a hunky investment banker (Benjamin Bratt) starts making eyes at Abbie, throwing their carefully constructed dynamic into disarray.
Lazily directed by Oscar-winner John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) with an eye towards his actors' muscle tone rather than characterizations (even the kid does yoga), the faults in The Next Best Thing aren't solely on the shoulders of its miscast stars, but rather the painfully inept screenplay by Tom Ropelewski. With cardboard dialogue that sounds like bad first-draft material--including wailing by Madonna about how she can't find a man (ha!) and a gym-buffed Everett complaining about gay male body image (double ha!)--the movie stumbles from domestic comedy to custody-suit tragedy when it takes a bizarre left turn in the third act. Any statements about new definitions of family are buried underneath these dubious events, which (of course) provide teary courtroom outbursts for both leads. Everett has a quick way with a one-liner, and Madonna is more relaxed than she's ever been in a film, but Schlesinger just tosses them in front of the camera with no help whatsoever; the supporting cast, including Lynn Redgrave, Neil Patrick Harris, and Illeana Douglas, is also left to flounder inexplicably. There's a thoughtful and provocative movie to be made about gay parents, but The Next Best Thing certainly isn't it. --Mark Englehart