'How Stella Got Her Groove Back': THR's 1998 Review

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Angela Bassett (left) and Whoopi Goldberg in 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' (1998)
It's a sexier, sassier version of Hollywood's old-time romancers.

On August 14, 1998, 20th Century Fox unveiled the Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg starrer How Stella Got Her Groove Back in theaters. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back surely has its niche among mature black females, but the spicy, touching romantic comedy about a 40-year-old black woman's midlife rut should win wider appeal among intelligent moviegoers burned out by car crashes, explosions and comets.

Adapted from Terry McMillan's ribald, heartfelt novel and starring Angela Bassett in the title role, Stella's got plenty of style and brains. It's a sexier, sassier version of Hollywood's old-time romancers that surely will woo respectable end-of-summer box office for 20th Century Fox. But the smart film's natural groove may be on the video circuit, where it will score heavily as a Saturday night rental.

Stella has everything — great job, great kid, lots of money — except a life. She's an overachiever, given to long hours at her investment job where she's making a tidy living and doing all the right things, from jogging to looking out for her sisters and friends.

But all the bucks and success have come with a price: She's divorced and hasn't had a date in ages. Available guys, to Stella's critical eye, are either duds or inappropriate. In short, she's a bit of a drudge and, undeniably, somewhat of a control freak.

Luckily, Stella is smart enough to have a crazy, more adventurous friend. Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg) not only is her alter ego but is sassy enough to give Stella a kick in the butt to jump-start her dormant dating life. When Stella's young son (Michael J. Pagan) goes to visit his father for a week, Delilah convinces Stella to accompany her to Jamaica for some R&R. Namely, Delilah wants the repressed, overly disciplined Stella to sow some wild oats.

At first uptight and chilly, Stella soon warms to a young resort employee with the unlikely moniker Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs). He is educated, caring, good-looking and (yikes!) all of 20 years old. Winston is immediately attracted to Stella, who is flattered but cautious. Much to her amazement, Stella soon finds herself seeking out the young man and — what did they put in those rum drinks? — involved in a vacation romance. She finds herself laughing, cavorting and, wondrously, having fun — great feelings she's long forgotten.

Fans of McMillan's novels will be pleased that her wickedly funny descriptions and raunchy, perceptive dialogue have been distilled marvelously in her and Ron Bass' sparkling, zesty screenplay. Unlike most summer movies, Stella is about people and their inner conflicts and personal obstacles: In Stella's case, it's about finding balance in her life, namely romance and professional satisfaction. Like anyone who's conscientious, she spends too much time trying to please others and fit societal norms.

Above all, Stella's battle is with herself, and it's a conflict we care about deeply in large part because of Bassett's spunky, delectable performance. While it's usually irrelevant to talk Oscars during the popcorn summer season, her spirited, ranging, juicy turn is very likely to earn a best actress nomination. Bassett is sensational: stewing, simmering, smoldering — she takes us through all of Stella's complex, conflicted feelings.

The supporting players are well-chosen, particularly Goldberg, whose saucy turn as Stella's rambunctious sidekick is at once hilarious and heart-rending. As Stella's buttinski sisters, both Regina King as the irresponsible sibling and Suzzanne Douglas as the judgmental one are terrific. Pagan is winning as Stella's protective young son. In his feature film debut, Diggs is appropriately alluring and steady as Stella's young lover.

Special praise to director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, whose mature hand blends sexiness with smarts. Unlike many of today's romantic films whose sexy scenes are often cheesy and leeringly immature, "Stella" is wonderfully sensuous but never cheap. Admittedly, Sullivan's broad strokes sometimes get a little precious, but overall, the smart, good-hearted film sparks perfectly. And for us old-fashioned types, it climaxes in a great old-style, airport/romantic windup.

Technical contributions are scrumptiously alluring, including Jeffrey Jur's gloriously lush lensing and Chester Kaczenski's vividly telling production design. But the best technical groove goes to costume designer Ruth E. Carter for Bassett's splendid, peacock array of enticing finery. Move over superstar runway models, Bassett struts out the year's best fashion show. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Aug. 10, 1998