Leslie Wright is unlucky in love. At 35, she has a successful career, a loving family and everything else a woman could need. Except, of course, a husband. It’s not for lack of trying (this is a rom com, after all; in rom com land – and in the real world, apparently – there’s no such thing as a happily single 35-year-old Black woman). When we first meet Leslie, she’s on a blind date with a great man. They talk, they laugh, and everything seems to be going well until he tells her that he just wants to be friends – he thinks she’d make “the perfect home girl.” Leslie, who’s heard this many times before, returns home feeling discouraged. At home, she finds her father, an affectionate wannabe-handyman, her mother, who is seemingly obsessed with marrying Leslie off and her godsister Morgan (Paula Patton) who is stunning but spoiled.
Morgan, unemployed and in a little financial trouble, has a plan: She’s going to marry a sports star. Specifically, a basketball player. As she sees it, being the wife of a franchise player is the path to riches, fame and even your own clothing line. So when she and Leslie go to basketball games, Leslie, a devout Nets fan, watches the game. Morgan watches the players and their wives. When Leslie has a chance run-in with Scott McKnight, the Nets’ star player (Common), Morgan seizes the opportunity to win his affections by lying to and manipulating him. Leslie, who clearly has a crush on McKnight, with whom she turns out to share multiple interests, can only sit back and watch. We get the sense that this has happened many times before: As Leslie says, “As soon as a guy sees Morgan, I become invisible.”
Three months later, Morgan and McKnight are engaged, much to the dismay of his mother, played by the always wonderful Phylicia Rashad. But then McKnight gets injured, and his contract with the Nets is suddenly in jeopardy. Morgan brings Leslie in to help him get back into fighting shape, but when rumors arise that the Nets don’t plan to re-sign him, Morgan leaves. As Leslie and McKnight continue to work together, a romance blossoms and she falls in love with him. She gets him into shape in time for the playoffs, and soon, he’s back at the top of his game. Predictably, Morgan comes back and begs for a second chance, which he (predictably) gives her. Leslie, heartbroken, plans to leave town, until McKnight realizes that he’s in love with her and begs her to stay.
This romantic comedy has everything you’ve come to expect from the genre. A girl-next-door who can’t get men to see her as anything more than a friend? Check. A marriage-obsessed parent? Check. A funny and uplifting training montage? Check. An on-air realization that you’re actually in love with the woman who’s been in right in front of you all this time, followed by hasty removal of your mic and the line “there’s somewhere else I need to be”? Ugh, check.
But in other ways, Just Wright breaks some of the most problematic rules of the mainstream romantic comedy. For starters, the leading lady is a plus-size Black woman. And while she’s eager to find a man, she has high standards – she’s waiting for “the one man she can’t live without” and who can’t live without her – and she’s not willing to settle. She also has a career that doesn’t reflect on her personality, that is, she’s not one of the cold hard executive bitches or the cool glamorous party planners who populate rom com land. She’s already successful, and she has further ambitions: At the start of the movie, she’s the head trainer at a rehabilitation center, and before long, inspired by her successful efforts to bring McKnight back to full strength, she’s decided to become an NBA trainer. So I guess what I’m saying is, I wasn’t in searing pain the entire time.
Leslie, like a lot of other leading rom com ladies, is surrounded by women who have some pretty messed up ideas about marriage. When she comes home from that first blind date, Morgan diagnoses what she did wrong: She acted like her regular self. “You’re not supposed to show him your regular self until you’ve been married for two years,” she admonishes, before launching into her plan for how to snag a basketball player. Leslie’s mom is similarly obsessed with marriage: The screenwriter seems to have been channeling the mother in Bend it Like Beckham when he wrote her, giving her lines like “how are you going to find a man dressed like that?” and “you are going to find a husband tonight, I know it.” In one scene, she appears in the bathroom as Morgan and Leslie are getting ready to go out, holding a pair of “husband getting earrings” that, she explains, helped her and her mother snag the men who eventually became their husbands (Leslie looks on, crestfallen, as her mother gives them to Morgan instead of to her). Leslie endures the marriage mania, acknowledging that while she’d like to find someone, she won’t go to the lengths of lying and manipulation that seem to be second nature to Morgan. We’re supposed to identify with Leslie and her low-maintenance, be-yourself kind of attitude, and think that her mother and Morgan are the ones with bizarre, over-the-top views. In reality, of course, the kind of advice that women are fed about how to attract and keep a man is suggests that we behave like Morgan, not like Leslie. From The Rules to Marry Him, dating advice books routinely tell women to disguise their real selves when trying to land a man, and to value money, security or a pulse over love.
Given this, it was interesting Morgan depicted as behaving the way she does because she’s emotionally damaged. Her mother died when she was very young, and her father abandoned her not long after, which is why Leslie’s parents took her in and why she and Leslie are virtually sisters. When Leslie finds out that Morgan has left McKnight, she storms home and confronts Morgan, accusing her (rightly) of only being after his money and telling her “you’ve got problems.” When Morgan asks McKnight for another chance, she alludes to those problems, explaining that her tumultuous childhood left her with emotional scars and trust issues. While it was nice to see Morgan’s character developed beyond “bitchy pretty girl,” I have to wonder why the screenwriter felt the need to give Morgan an excuse or explanation for her behavior. What she did was wrong, of course, but how different is it, really, from what mainstream dating guides advise women to do? Sure, her focus on achieving fame and wealth by marrying someone famous and wealthy is callous and unpleasant, but she’s not wrong when she observes aloud that dating and marrying a sports star is a quick route to financial security. Given the Lori Gottliebs of the world, not to mention the WAG phenomenon, it’s easy to see why Morgan thinks her plan is a smart and unobjectionable one.
Just Wright, which was both produced and directed by women, passes the Bechdel Test and gets extra points from me for a scene in which women two badass women, Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad, talk to each other about sports. But it loses points for the scene in which Scott McKnight actually utters the phrase “just Wright,” which is not a real pun because when you’re writing a movie you can choose your character’s last name. As McKnight, Common does quite a good job. He manages to bring a fair amount of nuance to the role of “gorgeous man torn between two gorgeous woman,” which isn’t the most emotionally complex of stories, and there’s some good unintentional comedy in the scene where he stands next to Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and is revealed to be about ten inches shorter than Howard.
The worst that can be said for Just Wright is that it is utterly predictable. As far as rom coms go, it’s not terribly imaginative, but it’s not nauseatingly sweet or sexist. In fact, it’s just… Nope. Still not a real pun.