Like dining hall apple pie, “Brown Sugar” leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s lame enough to make you feel like you wasted your time by giving it a chance. A mediocre telling of a trite story, “Sugar” dies trying.
The film stars Sanaa Lathan DRA ’95 (“Love and Basketball”) and Taye Diggs (also in Famuyiwa’s “The Wood”) as Sydney and Dre, childhood best friends who reanalyze their relationship before marrying other people. Supposedly, the catch is that the two are, respectively, a hip-hop music critic and an executive at a hip-hop label. If gratuitous use of the word “hip-hop” gave you trouble in that last sentence, you know what the problem is with writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s movie.
Famuyiwa intends for the music to be a metaphor for one or more of the following: the lives, loves, or careers of his characters, or perhaps only with Dre. At any rate, the connection is forced, foggy, and weakly developed. The dialogue is full of hit-you-over-the-head analogies, but there are too many to make a strong connection.
The movie opens with a lengthy barrage of rapid-cutting cameos by artists including Common and Pete Rock. The sequence feels like a pointless attempt at a hip hop documentary a la this summer’s “Scratch.” It says little more than, “Look! We got all these people to be in our movie!” But it’s the perfect introduction to a movie of gimmicks: time-lapse photography of Manhattan, dildo jokes, catfighting, four-way split screens, and a Rhoda-style vaguely raunchy but wise sidekick.
The story is tedious, but not for lack of ups and downs. Rather, the twists are so predictable and rapid-fire that the characters are left underdeveloped. In a narrative style antipodal to slice-of-life films such as “American Graffiti,” only major events and blatant foreshadowing appear on screen. Huge chunks of time during which, say, relationships develop are reduced to montages. It’s difficult to care about the characters or understand their lives. Famuyiwa and cowriter Mike Elliot try to make too much happen.
“Sugar” fails by trying to be something it’s not. Famuyiwa seems to want a “love letter to hip-hop” — yes, someone actually says this — but settles for a romantic comedy. In effect, he’s double majored in English and econ. If Famuyiwa wanted to make a hip-hop movie, he might have devoted all of his energy to it. Instead, his film is a romantic comedy-bildungsroman-historical fiction-social commentary, and his disjointed sweet nothings would do little good whispered in anyone’s ear.