Film review: Waiting to Exhale

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 27 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

Hey, I already know men are pigs. After all, I saw "How to Make an American Quilt"!

But now, here comes "Waiting to Exhale," with more of the same.

Actually, the main message here — though it takes two long hours to reach it — is that women don't necessarily need men. They can be independent and strong and live fully rounded lives even if real love doesn't come along. (And apparently it never does.)

But in the telling, it's more like all men are cheating, lying snakes . . . and all women are sex-obsessed and hopelessly naive (if not downright dumb). In fact, as this film tells it, women seem to fall for any old line, just as long as it seems sincere at the time.

Is this really what women want to see on the big screen?

Respected actor Forest Whitaker makes his directing debut with this adaptation of Terry McMillan's novel (adapted by McMillan and Ronald Bass, who also wrote the screenplays for "Rain Man" and "The Joy Luck Club.") Sadly, however, his choices for presenting this episodic ensemble tale of four black Phoenix women and their hapless love lives misfires on nearly every count.

Savannah (Whitney Houston) is a television producer who moves to Phoenix as the film opens, and who is trying to cut herself loose from a dead-end relationship with a married man; Bernadine (Angela Bassett) is frustrated because her two-timing husband has just left her for a white woman, and he's trying to cut her off from his vast financial holdings; Gloria (Loretta Devine) is an overweight single mother who owns a hair salon and is having trouble with her rebellious teenage son — and she longs to spend a night with her ex-husband, until he tells her that he's gay; and Robin (Lela Rochon) is a promiscuous executive in an insurance firm, who seems to have a knack for picking up the worst men possible.

Of course, in this film there's no other kind, with one or two ludicrous exceptions. (Meaning a character played by Gregory Hines, and a mystery guest-star who shows up late in the film.)

Whitaker frames everything nicely and comes up with some gorgeous compositions, of everything from the colorful Phoenix landscapes to his lovely quartet of stars. But each of the vignettes here has a defiantly different sensibility, ranging from the broadest slapstick comedy to the most depressive hopelessness — and sometimes we get both extremes in the same scene.

For example, Robin brings home one of her employees, an overweight nerd who has sex with her in a clownish, insensitive manner, and then, a few seconds later, he's portrayed as a considerate, sensitive gentleman. It's a transition that is so stark it makes no sense. (And the next time we see him, he's being quite nasty to her!)

Earlier in the film, Bernadine gets revenge on her estranged husband by destroying his belongings, as she rants and raves and screams profanities, in what is clearly intended as a comic sequence. But moments later, when she is confronted by a policeman at her front door, she's so sad that you may wonder if you were really meant to laugh.

Of course, any movie that can make Bassett look bad — and her over-the-top carrying on is way too much — has problems. After all, this is the woman who gave the only redeeming performances of both "Strange Days" and "Vampire in Brooklyn" earlier this year.

Let's put it this way — when Robin asks, "Don't we hear this on `Sally' and `Oprah' every day?" you may be inclined to agree.

"Waiting to Exhale" is rated R for sex, profanity, vulgarity, some violence and drug abuse.