The deliciously dishy Gabrielle Union, so memorable as the rival cheerleading captain opposite Kirsten Dunst in “Bring it On,” gets center stage in this saucy romantic comedy inspired by “Taming of the Shrew.”
Union plays Eva, the domineering big sister of the Dandridges, universally acknowledged as the four smartest and prettiest girls in the city. Eva took responsibility for the family after their parents were killed in an automobile accident, and even though they are all grown up, she still calls the shots. Her sisters’ significant others — two husbands and a boyfriend — smarting from her intrusions and insults, come up with a scheme — they will pay a “player” to win her heart and then dump her to keep her distracted and out of their lives.
The player is Ray (rap star LL Cool J), a rolling stone with charm to spare. He needs the money to buy a house, so he takes the job. But things don’t go as planned and Eva, Ray, and all the sisters and their men have some surprises in store and some lessons to learn.
There are some sharply observed moments and some barbed commentary on the war between the sexes, but what makes this movie above average is the snap, energy, and appeal of its outstanding young cast and its understated but affectionate glimpse of the community of middle class African-Americans. Union has one of the most sparkling smiles and one of the most attractive speaking voices in movies today, and LL Cool J (appearing under his original name as James Todd Smith) gives Ray not just all of his considerable charm but also some real acting to show us how Ray’s feelings for Eva change him. Director Gary Hardwick (“Brothers”) shows verve and imagination from the very first moment, when the opening credit sequence has the couples dancing Temptatations-style to Motown classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” A parallel to “Barbershop” sets a series of scenes in the local beauty salon, where the Dandridge sisters have weekly get-togethers for pedicures, facials, and lots of girl talk.
Parents should know that the movie is rated R for some very strong language and some explicit sexual references. A gay character is mildly stereotyped, but positively portrayed. The behavior of the main characters, however, demonstrates strong values, including responsibility, self-respect, and fidelity. Characters drink and there is a reference to a drinking problem.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we can support family members without being too intrusive. They may also want to talk about how people sometimes react to loss by trying to exert too much control on the people and circumstances around them.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the stories that may have inspired it, including Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the delightful British comedy, “Hobson’s Choice.” They should also see the marvelous “Barbershop.”