Madonna's Next Best Movie

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The best Madonna movies are the ones in which she plays characters that we believe are Madonna in real life. Desperately Seeking Susan chronicled the spunky Madonna of the '80s, Truth Or Dare showcased the bittersweet life of her stardom on tour and Body Of Evidence gave us the insane nymphomaniac we once believed her to be. It is only fitting then that The Next Best Thing brings us Madonna's next best film role - as the yoga-practicing single mother we have watched her become in real life.

Set in 1990s Los Angeles, where even the kids are yoga experts, The Next Best Thing spans the decade through the lives of best friends Abbie (Madonna) and Robert (Rupert Everett). He's gay, she can't ever find the right man, and on one Fourth of July evening after a few too many margaritas, more than just fireworks explode between them. The next thing they know, Abbie is pregnant with Robert's child, and their friendship crosses into territory where few gay men and their female best friends have ever gone before.

Abbie decides to keep her baby (insert your "Papa Don't Preach" joke here) and raise it with father figure Robert on the basis of their loving friendship. They agree not to marry each other, thereby doing away with any of the complications of divorce, and to remain on the dating circuit with each other's support. A traditional American family this definitely ain't, but it actually manages to function just like one - maybe even a little better at the beginning.

It's when their son Sam (newcomer Malcom Stumpf) grows up and starts asking questions that things get problematic. How come Mommy never sleeps in Daddy's bed? Is Daddy gay like all my friends say he is? Abbie and Robert are honest and explanative with him as any good parents would be, but the awkwardness of him asking still lingers with them as time goes by.

Things don't get any better when the perfect man (Julia Robert's beau Benjamin Bratt) stumbles into the yoga class Abbie is teaching and sweeps her off her feet. Robert - who can't seem to sustain a relationship of his own - gets jealous and eventually grows paranoid that they're going to steal Sam away from him.

What's awkward about The Next Best Thing is that it starts out as a light-hearted comedy but morphs into a courtroom drama over the custody of Sam. It happens to be great at either extreme though, and the transition between them works smoothly thanks to the dynamic performances of everyone in the film.

Everett's Robert is your unstereotypical gay man, who self-admitingly "flunked on gay history" and is tired of working the club scene. Still, he likes to walk around a lot in only his Calvins and manages to say to Madonna's face that she's the only woman in the world he'd like Everett manages to blur that line perfectly, even giving Robert a bit of a conservative slant - something unusual in a film that breaks away from so many traditional family rules.

Abbie is probably the most well-rounded character Madonna will ever play. Imagine seeing the Queen of Pop drinking juice straight out of the container, browsing for bananas at the local grocery store, or sinking her teeth into a double cheeseburger (a veggie burger in disguise, no doubt)! Of course, there's more to Abbie than that - she's tender, witty, bitchy, loving, desperate and moody all rolled into one. If that isn't the kind of "real" woman we think Madonna has become, then I don't know what is.

The kind of social topics The Next Best Thing tackles happen to be right down Madonna's alley too. Homophobia, living with AIDS, single parenthood - all are issues she's confronted before in her career, but this time they're tweaked for a '00s audience to digest. Several more themes emerge as well, like how Abbie and Robert never seem to cease their drinking and smoking habits. As light as it's PG-13 rating may be, I can still see parents not wanting their kids to see this film - indeed, Madonna and controversy really still coexist with each other.

But at it's conclusion, The Next Best Thing really is a true lesson in morals and love. The new American family has yet another film proving its functionality and positivity, much like 1998's The Object Of My Affection. This film, though, has the Madonna seal of approval, and it's actually more utterly convincing thereby.


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