There really isn’t anything new about “Something New.” Director Sanaa Hamri’s debut film lives up to the comfortably formulaic romantic comedy archetype, though fails to make the sort of groundbreaking commentary on interracial relationships (a la “Island in the Sun”) to which it aspires. Furthermore, “Something New,” riding on the success of last year’s “Crash,” illustrates Hollywood’s apparent belief that the only way to deal with issues of race in American film is to bludgeon audiences over the head with it — even though racism in contemporary society is often complex, subtle and nuanced.
That being said, Hamri does take a slightly less conventional approach to exploring the black-white couple, breaking free of the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” mold and looking at what happens when a black woman and white man fall in love. The first on-screen kiss between a Caucasian man and a black woman was in the late 1960s between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek” — perhaps easier to swallow because the lovers were not just different colors but belonged to different species as well. But since that fateful moment aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise (and ignoring 2005’s forgettable “Guess Who”) few directors have attempted to explore the dynamics of this particular mixed relationship.
“Something New” follows Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan, of “Love and Basketball” fame) — a young, successful black woman climbing the ranks of a Los Angeles accounting firm — and her socially illicit romance with white landscape architect Brian (Simon Baker). Stanford-educated and the daughter of a successful doctor, Kenya is representative of both the crest of the black upper-middle class (so rarely depicted in television and film) as well as the professional, single woman who seems to have particular trouble finding a mate. Therefore, she and her equally successful closest friends are desperately in search of their IBM — Ideal Black Man.
Recognizing that the search for her IBM has reached an impasse, Kenya agrees to a blind date that, of course, goes horribly awry. In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film, Kenya meets Brian at the Magic Johnson Starbuck’s in L.A. and, after observing his unfortunate pigmentation, makes a point of demonstrating her blackness by calling out to her fellow brothers and sisters (along the lines of “Hey girl, nice weave!”) before excusing herself from the date.
But as fate would have it, Brian ends up being commissioned to landscape the decrepit and weed-infested backyard of Kenya’s home, eventually tending to more than just her literal garden.
A laid-back, live-for-the-moment type, Brian brings a refreshing burst of color (in the form of paint swatches) and spontaneity to Kenya’s beige-walled life. He listens to loud music in his beat-up car and is perpetually accompanied by his trusty golden retriever, whereas Kenya wears fitted suits on the weekends and “doesn’t do dogs.” It quickly becomes clear that, aside from his peachy complexion, Brian’s sooty green thumb is the real problem. The pair is separated not only by race, but also by the fact that Brian’s job requires manual labor, ill-fitting with Kenya’s concept of the IBM.
Despite these obstacles, though, the attraction between Kenya and Brian is undeniable. As contrived as the racial tension between the two may be, the chemistry between Lathan and Baker is palpable. While Hamri may lack finesse concerning racial discussions, she gets it right when it comes to love — the development of Kenya and Brian’s relationship is magically subtle. And in a particularly nice bit of camera work, when Kenya and Brian finally consummate their taboo attraction they wake up cast in a golden light that makes their skin appear the same color.
Complications aside, including Kenya’s introduction to IBM-material Mark Harper (Blair Underwood), the mixed couple triumphs and proves that love really does conquer all. “Something New” is as predictable as any movie of its genre (Kenya’s hatred of both dogs and the color red foreshadows her imminent love for Brian’s friendly golden retriever and an intimate scene in which he paints her toenails red). But when Hollywood seems to have given up on heterosexual love, Hamri’s film provides an enjoyable, albeit trite, escape for the wayward valentine.