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The Carletonian

“Love is what you make of it”: A review of “Love Jones” (1997)

“Love Jones” (dir. Theodore Witcher) is a rom-com that doesn’t feel like a rom-com. There are moments of raucous laughter, but unlike most in its genre, it never pushes for the joke. In one scene, a guy named Hollywood  (Bill Bellamy) offers to give Nina (Nia Long) and her friend Josie (Lisa Nicole Carson) a lift home. “Is that your car?” asks Nina. “No,” Hollywood replies, “It’s the hearse.” The guy drives a hearse. But what sells it is when the girls politely decline, he counters with: “It’s a Cadillac!” The joke isn’t that Hollywood drives a hearse, but that he’s a character who tries playing it off as something cool or sexy. It’s hard to explain because you had to be there. But I know that NONE OF YOU were there. Friday night’s screening of “Love Jones” was empty save for me and my friend, who was operating the projector. You all missed out!

The movie is wildly funny, but relies on its characters and the talented performers bringing them to life more than the absurdity of stuff like the hearse gag. “Love Jones” plays things smoothly and straight, reading like a humanistic examination of love that’s one part comedy and one part an homage to the Black art scene in Chicago. Nina is a photographer trying to make it in a largely white-controlled industry, and the film opens with a montage of her portfolio of Black life in the city. Her love interest isn’t Hollywood (for most of the film), but Darius (Larenz Tate), a slam poet trying to write a book.

My favorite part is that Darius and Nina are not an intuitive couple. Both are artists, and hungry artists at that, who initially connect through their deep reflections on the nature of art. Darius is temperamental and playful; while he matures as the film progresses, Tate always grants him a boyish air that makes him entertaining to watch. Nina is more serious and harder to read. Long plays her as grounded yet wary, keeping men at arm’s length for fear of being hurt again. I’ve criticized rom-coms for forcing couples that don’t work, but “Love Jones” seems refreshingly aware of the fundamental differences between two people.  “Love is what you make of it,” the film tells us; it’s never a perfect fit and never makes sense. The experience of the rom-com also wanted “the perfect couple” to work out, but I wanted Darius and Nina to stick together because they weren’t perfect, they just felt like two real human beings. 

The film gives us lots of snippets of their evolving relationship. How Darius and Nina fall in and out of love takes center stage. From the passionate beginning of a relationship to the miscommunication of what they are after to the breakup. At one point, you transition from the honeymoon stage to a scene where Darius is loudly pounding out his novel on a typewriter, and the volume of the clacking keys is enough to signal that “Uh oh, that sound’s going to get on Nina’s nerves, isn’t it?” Transition is the film’s greatest strength and weakness. Sometimes, the jumps in time rob us of narrative meat. We don’t see the relationship transition from passion to annoyance, but the sound of that typewriter is still a great shorthand way of telling that story. My favorite part is a transition in which Nina is developing a photo she took of Darius. The red light of the darkroom envelops the screen as the image of Darius materializes into the frame. It’s a fantastic way of showing that her affection for him is growing.

“Love Jones” still falls prey to a handful of rom-com tropes that time hasn’t been the kindest to. Darius is likable until his persistence carries over into his approach to sex, at least at the beginning of the relationship. The movie is aware of this to an extent. He makes up a poem on the spot for Nina when first meeting her in a slam poetry club, and it’s sensual and seductive. He’s chastised for boiling love down to sex by other characters, and this is a premise he grows from as his relationship with Nina develops into something more than just “kickin’ it.” Still, this old-fashioned persistence is seen as awkward today and may be a complete turn-off for some audience members. There’s more to him than this flaw, but it exists  nonetheless.

Aside from that, “Love Jones” was a hilarious and human delight. It’s a rom-com with extra steps, putting in more depth and craft than what’s often called for in this time-honored formula. It puts a lot of trust in its characters and cinematography to tell a story you get engrossed in and find funny in many places. It’s not aiming for high comedy, but this movie made me laugh more consistently than many others who try their damnedest to be amusing. I loved it, I keep listening to the music, I keep telling people about it and I keep laughing about that hearse bit with the friend I watched it with.

 Rating: 4/5

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