(On Cable TV, January 2019) While Waiting to Exhale isn’t that significant a movie in film history, it still plays so often on cable that it wore me down. I gave up and finally recorded it, although not out of exasperation. My intentions in watching it were not noble at all: Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine and Angela Basset headlining the film? I’ll watch that. An episodic story focusing on four women’s attempt to find love in spite of bad partners, Waiting to Exhale also features the directorial debut of Forest Whitaker, who imbues the film with odd stylistic choices that, perhaps unfortunately, precisely date the movie to the mid-1990s. Still, the movie itself is quite a bit of fun to watch. Our heroines don’t take cheating and romantic disappointment very well: in the film’s most memorable sequence, one sets fire to her cheating husband’s car, his clothes inside. While the episodic nature of Waiting to Exhale means that it has high and low points, the acting talent brought together here remains notable. Angela Basset, in particular, is at her best here with a powerhouse performance. The all-black casting is so successful in that by the time a white woman shows up (as a romantic rival, no less) late in the movie, the effect is definitely jarring. Among the male cast, Dennis Haysbert and Wesley Snipes have good roles, but viewers should be forewarned that this is not a movie in which men get the most admirable characters—this is female empowerment, and much of Waiting to Exhale’s success can be found in how completely and solidly it makes viewers (even white men such as myself) identify with the four black women protagonists.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, June 2009): You would think that a 1995 film re-casting 1992 racial tensions in then-future 1999 Los Angeles would be irremediably dated fifteen years later. But nothing could be farther from the truth: For once thing, the story (co-written by James Cameron) is a savvy exploration of a seductive SF concept that hasn’t aged a wrinkle since then. For another, Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional direction keeps things moving both in and out of frame: there’s a terrific visual density to what’s happening on-screen, and the subjective camera moments are still brutally effective. But even the dated aspects of the film still pack a punch, as they now appear to have taken place in an alternate reality where police brutality and memory recording have flourished even as the Internet hasn’t taken off. (History of Science students are free to sketch how one explains the other.) But it’s really the characters that keep the whole thing together: Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as a romantic hustler, while Angela Basset’s seldom been better than she is here, all smooth cheekbones, high attitude and shiny dreadlocks. The pacing is a bit slow (how many times do we need to see Lenny pine away for Faith?) and the ending isn’t as snappy as it should have been, but Strange Days is still amazingly peppy for a film with such an explicit expiration date. It measures up against the best SF films of the nineties, and that’s already saying something. The DVD has a smattering of extras (most notably a few good deleted scenes, a twenty-minute audio commentary and a teaser trailer that I could still quote fifteen years later), but this is a film overdue for a special edition treatment.