This is a Fox selection, doubtless for its female, African-American cast (you can tick two PC boxes with this one). But it was also a pretty eagerly awaited Christmas release in ’95, and it made money, not to mention giving us the smash Whitney Houston single “Shoop, Shoop.” But is it artistically meritorious? In a word… meh.
The film Waiting To Exhale was based on the bestselling book by Terry McMillian, and it was one of those books that so connected with a demographic – African-America females – that it pretty much became their bible for a good ten-year stretch. It was so thunderingly resonative because it depicted, in great, emotional detail, the conundrum of the modern black relationship: how can you find a good man when they’re either deadbeats or married? And why do affairs with the married ones always lead to heartbreak in the end? Ultimately, you turn to each other, and it’s this sisterhood, this unique social bond that you’re apt to find in beauty salons or sleepover parties, that dulls the pain, ant least for awhile. Exhale gave the rest of America a taste of this culture – in essence affirming, “We are here, and we got man problems like the rest of you!”
And now, the movie – Fox made damned sure it got the special treatment, hiring actor Forrest Whitaker to direct, and pop sensation Whitney Houston to play one of four lead heroines. Her role is Savannah, a TV producer who has man troubles – she’s falling head over heels with a married man who’s promised to leave his wife soon, very soon. Savannah’s mom thinks the guy is just peachy, but daughter dear just isn’t so sure. And the there’s Robin (Lela Rochon) who has.. man troubles. She’s just left one married man and now finds herself attracted to another. But will he leave his significant other? And is she – gasp! – pregnant too! And then there’s Gloria (Loretta Devine), who has… man troubles after finding out that her ex-husband is gay, thereby negating any chance of reconciliation, and finds hersef head over heels in love – apparently true love – with a new neighbor (Gregory Hines). And finally we have Bernadine (Angela Bassett), who has (oh, never kind). She’s pissed – I mean really pissed – that her husband has just announced he’s leaving her for a white woman and plans to keep everything in the divorce. But now, at rock bottom, she’s just found a sweet man (Wesley Snipes) whose wife is dying of cancer, and together they forge a platonic relationship (so far) of mutual love and respect.
First the good news. Whitaker does a fine, fluid job of shuttling throughout these four stories, allowing nearly equal time for each and having enough scenes of them together to foster a nice “touching base” sort of effect. And he sets a pitch-perfect tone too - we begin on New Year’s Eve as a radio DJ sets a smooth, slowjam type of vibe that imbues the film with at least one theme – slow down and relax, and your troubles will often take care of themselves. It undercuts a lot of more intense moments in Exhale, and makes it, well… entertaining for the most part. We damned well need a soulful Aretha song after Angela Bassett burns every living reminder of her slimeball husband in the backseat of his sports car.
Several of the performances are noteworthy too. Bassett has the showiest part – her Bernadette gets to storm and sneer and sniffle, often within the same scene. But she also excels at the quiet stuff too – notably during her scenes with Snipes where she often just stares at him, letting her reacting do the acting. And newcomer Rochon isn’t bad as a sexy single who starts out blithely content wiih her lifestyle, before it dawns on her that all those beddings fail to provide the peace in her life that she so desperately requires. Her funniest scene – a not-so-erotic tryst with a Ton-Loc wannabe, which starts out comic and then turns to a quiet, revealing moment. She becomes instantly likeable after this.
But despite its general success as entertainment there seems to be something missing from this work, particularly when you consider it as feminist tract. We’re just not getting the significance here, or, for that matter, a purpose. Individually, these women have stories to tell, and they each offer a tale about their woes in dealing with the opposite sex, but together they drift off into the ether, and it doesn’t help that none really has any sort of conclusion. (The last scene is a shot of all four gazing at New Years fireworks, just after commenting about a Roberta Flack song in the car.) Two of the stories are nearly identical in plot – Savannah and Robin’s respective not-leaving-my-wife love interests – and so neither comes off as strikingly important. Only the Bassett/Snipes story seems like it has something to say, but it lacks a third act – we don’t really know where they’re going, nor do they tell us.
This most likely wasn’t the case with the book, as literature is a medium in which the author, as a direct storyteller, is better able to impart a message. But with movies it’s the characters, and their speech and actions, which must do that. And despite a lot of soul-searching talks between the women and some fiery arguments between the men and women, the film version just simply fails to rise much above an ensemble chick-flick. Oh, it’s a well-done chick-flick, but a chick flick nonetheless.
And I’m sure that was not their intention. But if you go in with moderate expectations you’re likely not to be disappointed. And you’ll get to see at least a couple of fine performances. Oh, and don’t forget that soundtrack.