Love & Basketball is divided into four quarters; thank God there's no overtime. The directorial debut of writer Gina Prince-Bythewood, who once penned scripts for A Different World and Felicity, is a film built on transitions so weak and obvious it's astonishing the entire thing doesn't collapse on itself. You want to root for it, as you would for any rookie underdog, but it offers nothing to cheer for. It's a basketball film that chokes at crunch time, that bitches out when it should be taking charge. In the end, it's nothing but a montage of self-help aphorisms and feel-good love scenes set to Kate Bush songs as performed by Maxwell. All you're left with is a fairytale set in the suburbs, a coming-of-age romance that feels as though it's shot in real time. The principals grow up; you only grow old, tired, bored.
It begins in 1981, in the cushy Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills, long after white flight has rendered the neighborhood a darker shade of rich. There, NBA journeyman Zeke McCall (Dennis Haysbert) has settled his family: son Quincy (played as a child by Glenndon Chatman and as a young man by Omar Epps) and wife Nona (Debbi Morgan, once of All My Children). Eleven-year-old Quincy rules the neighborhood courts; he dreams of playing for the Los Angeles Clippers just like his old man. But Q's small world is thrown into disarray when a new family moves in and the girl next door, Monica (Kyla Pratt, who grows up and becomes a radiant Sanaa Lathan), proves she can ball and take a fall as good as any boy. Quincy can't tell whether he loves or loathes this tomboy next door, whose room is wallpapered with Magic Johnson posters. A day after meeting her, Q kisses Monica before shoving her to the ground.
It's at this juncture that the film begins to lay its of-course bridges -- meaning everything that happens during the movie's opening minutes leads to a resolution so predictable it makes a sunrise look surprising by comparison. Quincy and Monica end up at the same high school (Crenshaw), of course, where they're roundball standouts and off-court rivals, of course. But at the spring dance, which they've attended with different dates, of course, Quincy and Monica decide all those years of living within inches of each other (their bedroom windows are so close, one can hear the other breathing) have made them more than friends. They're lovers. Of course.
And, of course, both get recruited to play ball for the same college, the University of Southern California -- where Quincy's old man was a star back in the day. But, as it turns out, childhood lovers don't last too long in college, so Quincy and Monica end up parting ways. He goes into the NBA before his freshman year ends, only to wind up riding the pine for a handful of teams before landing as a Lakers reserve in 1993. Monica lasts long enough to become an All-American and, eventually, a star in Europe. Of course. Ah, but will such star-crossed lovers remain apart forever? If you don't know the answer, perhaps you need to get out of the house more often.
Such narrative troubles are bound to arise when a first-timer tries to condense a lifetime of Oprah-worthy issues into a two-hour film; anything meaningful is rendered as a cliché until all emotion is watered down as trite sentiment. It's not just a film about lovers and basketball; it's not just a movie about winning and losing the games men and women play. Love & Basketball is also a film about sons and the fathers who guide them, daughters and the mothers who don't understand them, sons and the mothers who protect them, daughters and the fathers who appreciate them. There's enough here for a handful of after-school specials (or at least a really good, very special two-part White Shadow), let alone one movie.
Almost no one in this film seems terribly interested in it. Epps possesses a chiseled body and a blank stare; he shows the same intensity driving a car as he does driving to the hoop. Lathan is only slightly better, but she's stuck in a hollow role. Never do we get the sense this woman needs to play ball. She tells Quincy she lost her drive the day she lost him, but there's no force behind her words; they bounce against the audience like an off-the-mark jump shot. Prince-Bythewood thinks that just putting a basketball in Monica's hands (at one point, Quincy jokes that she ought to take Spaulding to the school dance) is enough to explain her obsession, but in the end, the ball is only a prop. She can play; we have no idea why she must.
Lost amid the ruins of good intentions and trite filmmaking is a rather engaging story: that of the old man, Zeke, who can't adjust to life after basketball and celebrity. Haysbert, a survivor of the Major League films who has since prospered on the CBS series Now & Again, limps around this movie like a lost man -- a shamed shadow who has failed at his marriage and who finally fails his own son. He's the one real character in a film full of cutouts and foul-outs.
Opens April 21.