The newly pop-culture-friendly gay man/straight woman paradigm—rendered invariably as a wellspring of waggish repartee and mutual you-go-girl empathy—reaches a hall-of-mirrors dead end with real-life tag team Rupert Everett and Madonna. Going at least one convolution further than the likes of Will and Grace and The Object of My Affection, The Next Best Thing saddles its homo-hetero best friends with a baby.
Robert, a gardener, and Abbie, a yoga instructor, are what you might call soul mates—both are shrill, maudlin, narcissistic creatures who speak in wilted epigrams. Their accidental reproduction adventure begins in a haze of boozy self-pity. The script offers the drunken duo the excuse of a friend’s recent death (his funeral occasions an a cappella version of Madonna’s new single “American Pie”), but the real catalyst for their surprise fuck is a nobody-loves-me wallow session. In behavior that movies evidently deem typical of fag-and-hag camaraderie, they bitch toothlessly about a beauty pageant on TV (“Her national costume is too tight!”) and get misty-eyed over lost loves (“I don’t miss being first runner-up”).
For nearly an hour, The Next Best Thing passes itself off as a celebration of alternative families—with Abbie and Robert raising their son together, a living arrangement whose built-in complications seem not to have crossed their minds—then takes it all back with a surge of Kramer vs. Kramer histrionics. When Abbie falls for a New York banker (Benjamin Bratt), the movie morphs into a custody-battle melodrama, complete with kidnap-panic scene and tearful courtroom testimonials.
An embarrassment to rival her “Ray of Light” death-yodel at the MTV awards two years back, Madonna’s performance here consists of feigning an English accent, for no apparent reason and only when it occurs to her to do so. Everett, who registers more than ever as a butch Hugh Grant, deserves even greater blame, having apparently tailored the screenplay for himself and Madonna (the witless mess remains credited to Thomas Ropelewski, whose most notable previous work is Look Who’s Talking Now). Whether in screwball-gaysploitation or issue-of-the-week mode, the movie—directed in hands-off fashion by the increasingly doddery John Schlesinger—favors crude dramatic devices over even the most basic character psychology. This is, of course, a problem lost on Madonna and Everett, who have approached The Next Best Thing as a vanity project—hell-bent on playing barely human characters as themselves, they’ve created something quitebewilderingly ugly in the process.
A more coherent but no more sophisticated view of the perilous modern mating game, Mike Nichols’s What Planet Are You From? starsGarry Shandling as an alien sent to impregnate an earthling—the first step in an imminent takeover by his all-male planet, whose highly evolved natives possess neither emotions nor genitalia. For his mission, our dickless hero—assuming the guise of Harold Anderson, Phoenix banker—has been fitted with a mechanical penis that, when aroused, makes an alarming whirring noise (somewhere between vibrator and Cuisinart). Cruising AA meetings with sleazy coworker Greg Kinnear, Harold zeroes in on his target: mildly neurotic, sweetly patient 12-stepper Susan (Annette Bening).
Literalizing the Men Are From Mars conundrum, the movie essentially writes itself, but the performances save it from Earth Girls Are Easy opprobrium. An actor who never trades in half-measures, Bening actually works hard at making Susan a flesh-and-blood person; the supporting cast includes the great John Goodman, as a suspicious aviation investigator, and Linda Fiorentino, back to vamping after her mysteriously anemic turn in Dogma. Shandling, who also cowrote the screenplay, has no range to speak of (his fixed expression is one of severe consternation), but his knowingly piggish self-absorption prevents the movie from thickening into treacle. There’s a certain satisfaction in recognizing that Harold—even when he inevitably starts to feel, just like a human—remains something of an asshole.