It’s hard to watch “The Next Best Thing,” one of the first major Hollywood movies to feature gay characters in main roles, and not be struck by how homophobic the movie actually is. It’s particularly galling considering the onscreen participation of Madonna (herself a major gay icon) and Rupert Everett (one of the few out Hollywood actors at the time) in such a rancid, hateful exercise in performative activism. The screenplay is littered with casual homophobia (which is made all the more frustrating when it comes out of the mouths of the gay characters in the movie), while the central narrative is, at best, negligible made-for-television pabulum that inevitably ends with an unpleasant courtroom battle between the two main characters. The movie is also hard to get behind because, well, its characters are just awful people: Madonna’s Abby is an off-putting snob who behaves so selfishly that it doesn’t take long for the audience to turn against her, while Everett’s Robert is a whiny, self-loathing jerk, and both characters are so horrible to each other that it’s impossible to see them as friends, which then negates the central premise. Everett’s performance is fine in a coasting-on-charm kind of way, but Madonna’s is a disaster: Her line delivery is stiff and she seems ill-at-ease in the role, like her participation in the movie is more of a public-relations effort than an actual performance. Luckily, director John Shlesinger does at least a serviceable job working around the two chronically malcontented lead characters, and the Eastern-inspired soundtrack occasionally injects a bit of life into the proceedings, but this is one of the most actively ugly movies Madonna has ever appeared in.
Rating: ★★ (out of 5)