The new romantic comedy "Deliver Us From Eva" constitutes a pleasant surprise not only in terms of its solid entertainment value and skillful deployment of star power, but even more in its refreshingly wholesome values. It might amount to the kiss of death for a frankly commercial project obviously aimed at the African-American audience, but open-minded observers might as well acknowledge that this audacious movie goes out of its way to convey conservative messages.
In one telling scene, the suave lady killer played by LL Cool J arrives for his first date with the glamorous and sophisticated Gabrielle Union – the Eva of the title. As he walks her out of her tastefully decorated home, she heads instinctively for the hot, red sports car she sees parked on her street, assuming that it's his vehicle. Instead, he steers her over to the, shabby, boxy delivery truck he's brought with him from work. "It's safe and cheap," he explains, "and I'm saving my money to buy a house."
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The characters in this movie all enjoy conspicuous success and plenty of creature comforts, but they've achieved their prosperity not through some effortless, innate brilliance (as in most films about the black middle class) but by saving, scraping, and relentlessly hard work. The romantic leads strive for excellence, achieve undeniable elegance and sex appeal, and model the virtues of self-discipline and deferred gratification. They also attend church and pray fervently, where the heroine, Eva, leads the passionate singing of the choir.
In her professional life, this hard-driving control freak loves her work as a government health inspector, ruthlessly committed to policing the cleanliness of LA restaurants. "Martin Luther King didn't compromise, Mandela didn't compromise," she sneers at a hapless proprietor who wants her to give him a break by compromising her high standards.
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As the oldest of the four stunningly beautiful Dandridge sisters (was the name chosen as a tribute to Dorothy Dandridge, the poised and ultimately tragic black star of 50 years ago?), Eva, in fact, proves too perfect and purposeful for the three men connected with her sisters. The guys want these lovely women all to themselves, but Eva constantly interferes with their relationships. Orphaned as young children, the four girls had to fend for themselves, and under Eva's determined leadership they saved money, pursued education and achieved glittering professional careers. Naturally, they feel closer to their perfectionist big sister than to the intermittently goofy guys they've chosen, so those guys devise a diabolical plan to drive Eva from their lives. They offer to pay a slick heartbreaker (LL Cool J) $5,000 if he can make Eva fall in love with him and drive her out of their lives.
Naturally, he ends up developing real feelings for the target of this scam and then tries to keep her from discovering the origins of their promising relationship.
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The formulaic plot (with the too conscious echoes of "The Taming of the Shrew") would have doomed the movie were it not for the luminous appeal of the two principals. Gabrielle Union is an intelligent and resourceful actress who makes you believe in Eva at both extremes?as an emasculating harridan who loves cutting the male of the species, and as a lonely, driven, vulnerable professional, desperately longing for tenderness and intimacy. Hip hop artist LL Cool J first displayed his serious acting chops as a charismatic, criminal monster in the spellbinding "In Too Deep," but here he displays similar magnetism in a characterization that shows visible growth and plausible transformation. Along with his commanding screen presence, this versatility may allow Cool J to develop into one of the most important movie stars of his generation. (He's so strong, in fact, that Hollyweird may even forgive him for the fact that he spent time during the last election cycle publicly campaigning for a – gasp! – Republican: George Pataki, Governor of New York. )
The members of the appealing supporting cast (Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee, Meagan Good, Dartanyan Edmunds, Mel Jackson and Duane Martin) work together like the components of a well-oiled machine?a bit too slick, in fact, for its own good. The contrived story line plays out with too much convenience and coincidence to offer much plausibility, but an unconventional and cunning framing device (the movie opens and climaxes at the funeral of one of the main characters) delivers us from… banality.
Raunchy dialogue about sexual functions and bodily endowments earn the picture its R-rating, though the sex scenes (with only very partial nudity) manage sensuality without a hint of pornography or exploitation. The one recurrent false note involves repeated return to a beauty parlor where the women of the cast (along with one obligatory gay hair-dresser) discuss the events in the story in a spirit of exaggerated camaraderie, attempting a black version of "Steel Magnolias," or a female version of "Barbershop."
And speaking of "Barbershop," the arrival of "Deliver Us From Eva" confirms a startling trend in smart, polished, new African-American movies that offer an overdue and welcome alternative in ethnic entertainment. "Barbershop," with its emphasis on family, tradition, community and self-respect, and "Drumline," with its focus on discipline, team-work and the uncompromising excellence of competitive marching bands at historically black colleges, represent previous (and spectacularly successful) installments in this series.
Each of these films focuses on a virtually all-black world, in which the characters spend no time battling racism or poverty or criminality or drugs or the ghetto. They don't depend on some sweeping social change, or concession by the white establishment, to achieve success and happiness. Instead, the people in these new movies battle the eternal human challenges –lust, greed, laziness, envy, self pity – on their way to pursuing their goals. In short, they function as fully human characters – not as the racial representatives and socio-political message bearers featured in most Spike Lee or John Singleton movies. This humanity helps to explain the huge cross over appeal for gigantic hits like "Barbershop" and "Drumline;" with any luck, "Eva" will follow their example.
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Director co-writer Gary Hardwick crafted two previous and similarly likeable romantic comedies ("Two Can Play That Game" and "The Brothers") that also concentrated on sophisticated and conspicuously successful black professionals. "Eva" offers a notable step forward in both its substance and its subtlety.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson may decry such films with their emphasis on achievers rather than victims – and, indeed, both of the notorious "Civil Rights Leaders" attacked the excellent "Barbershop" (Jackson, he admitted, lambasted the film without seeing it). Nevertheless, the emergence of this new and decidedly different cinematic vision suggest that both the African-American creative community and the black population at large may contain more diversity – and more conservatism – than the liberal establishment could comfortably acknowledge.
THREE STARS for "Deliver us from Eva."