"The Best Man Holiday" follows in the footsteps of writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's successful 1999 comedy "The Best Man," using a template familiar to anyone who may have seen "The Big Chill" or its micro-budget predecessor, "Return of the Secaucus Seven." They're all different in their qualities and atmosphere. "The Best Man Holiday," for example, is a far more Tyler Perry-ish mixture of comedy and tragedy than the easygoing "Best Man" was, back in the pre-Perry movie era.
Yet along with everything from "Jumping the Broom" to "Think Like a Man" to Adam Sandler's slovenly "Grown Ups" hits, these disparate ensemble pictures live or die on the same simple question: Do we enjoy hanging out with these people for a couple of hours?
The hangout factor remains gratifyingly high in "The Best Man Holiday," though the mood has grown bittersweet. In the first "Best Man," Taye Diggs' character, the novelist Harper, wrote a thinly disguised book about himself and his college friends in which he revealed his long-ago affair with Mia (Monica Calhoun), who's about to marry football star Lance (Morris Chestnut). Lance nearly threw Harper off a balcony when he finally learned of the tryst, but with God's guidance Lance's forgiving instincts brought everyone peaceably together for a climactic wedding and closing dance number.
Fourteen years later, times are tough for Harper. Now married to Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), with a child due, the once-hot novelist has followed up his best-seller with a sophomore slump of a book. Also he's been laid off by New York University, news he has yet to share with his wife. Harper still holds a small- to medium-sized torch for TV producer Jordan (Nia Long).
Reneging on the all's-well ending in the first "Best Man," superstar Lance has slipped into a jealous funk once again regarding Harper's dalliance with Mia. Nonetheless, Mia invites everyone to stay with them for Christmas. The gang's all here, including Julian (Harold Perrineau), now happily married to his ex-stripper, now-educator wife (Regina Hall). The shrill handful Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) was last seen hooking up with the unrepentant horn dog Quentin, played by Terrence Howard. Both return, and in particular it's a treat to see Howard mess around so entertainingly, after so many dramas, in a brashly comic role.
Some of the writing is pungently funny, as when Jordan's new squeeze (Eddie Cibrian) is described by one of the characters as "a tall vanilla swagga latte."
The first film's clash of true Christian believers and nonbelievers was part of the fabric of the comedy, though it wasn't all played for laughs. This time there's a blunt tone to the inspirational uplift.
It's a bit of a drag that the film is confined for long stretches to the interior of Lance and Mia's oddly underfurnished McMansion. But Lee, who made the underrated Chicago-set "Roll Bounce," knows where this movie's bread and butter is stored. When the four male leads suave their way through a dance number set to New Edition's "Can You Stand the Rain," it's a highlight because the hangout factor with this cast is considerable. And the movie, while nothing visually special, earns its queen-sized dose of pathos honestly.
As to why studios don't put out twice, three times, five times as many predominantly African-American ensemble pieces every year, given their typical cost-to-profit ratios ... good question.
"The Best Man Holiday" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief nudity)
Running time: 2:04