The Next Best Thing
For reasons never justified, Don McLean's "American Pie" serves as an occasional Greek chorus in John Schlesinger's The Next Best Thing. Using the broadest possible strokes, McLean's hokily cryptic but strangely effective 1971 single captures a nation waking up to the disappointing results of the rock-fueled rebellion of the '50s and '60s, a historical moment that has nothing to do with the events of the film. The Next Best Thing uses broad strokes, as well—though there's nothing cryptic or effective about it—in telling the story of the odd nuclear family formed when pregnant yoga instructor Madonna and the gay best friend with whom she has a fluke one-night stand (Rupert Everett, playing a gardener) decide to set up housekeeping. Though the two fail to notice that their tow-headed son (Malcolm Stumpf) appears to have wandered off the set of a CBS sitcom, all goes well for several years until Madonna falls for a perpetually smiling investment banker (Benjamin Bratt) and her lifestyle becomes subject to strain. She enunciates beautifully, but Madonna once again shows why she'll go down in history as an important musician but never as an actor, delivering a performance that can kindly be described as awkward. What's worse, she pulls everything around her down to her level of conspicuous inadequacy. Even the usually reliable Everett limits himself to two expressions: eyebrows arched (when TNBT tries to be funny) and jaw clenched (when it's in dramatic mode). There's so little to their characters that when they argue it's like watching dolls fight. Presumably meant to be a message film, The Next Best Thing fails even by those standards. It's never an issue whether a nice gay man and a limber straight woman can make a family. Problems arise only when Madonna looks elsewhere, making TNBT a film best seen only by mothers thinking of straying from the gay roommates their children call dad, all of whom probably have better things to do anyway.