How Stella Got Her Groove Back

She's forty; he's twenty. Can buppie heroine Stella (Angela Bassett), a single mom with a draining, high-paying job as a stockbroker in San Francisco, find happiness with Winston (Taye Diggs), a stud she finds on vacation in Jamaica? So much for plot. Novelist Terry McMillan turned her own holiday romance with a younger man into best-selling fiction. There's no reason why she won't strike a chord again with this film, co-written with Ron Bass, who also collaborated on the script of McMillan's Waiting to Exhale.

"Don't scare the white people," says Stella's best pal, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), as they begin their Jamaican romp. The guy who restores Stella's groove is Winston, an assistant chef who is almost twenty-one and, as Stella notes, "almost not a felony." Diggs, a New York stage actor (Rent) in his film debut, is a charmer, even though the script has him add mahn after each sentence to indicate Winston is Jamaican.

It's in the friendship between Stella and Delilah that the film finds its humor and its heart. Stella fears that her love for Winston — she wants to take him home — will make her look like a cradle robber. "He brings Cocoa Puffs to bed," she tells Delilah, who hoots, "Hmm, young and innovative." Bassett is a beauty of blazing talents, but Goldberg is a scene-stealing wonder as Delilah (barely referred to in the novel). This sister has got it going on.

In the film's second, and lesser, half, sentiment enters in big, soapy globs: cancer, the pregnant pause, the profound statement ("God is here"). Kevin Rodney Sullivan, a TV director (Soul of the Game) new to features, too often buries the grit in gloss, a problem compounded by the superslick soundtrack, produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Honesty returns in Stella's relationships with her two sisters, Angela (Suzzanne Douglas), who disapproves of young Winston, and the go-for-it Vanessa; played by Regina King with a sassy Miss Thing attitude that even Whoopi might envy.

Whether you regard Stella's getting her groove back as a feminist battle cry or as a silly wish-fulfillment fantasy, the movie delivers guilt-free escapism about pretty people having wicked-hot fun in pretty places. Bodies, clothes, furniture and real estate are objectified with an erotic intensity unseen since A Perfect Murder. You've heard of a beach book. Well, Stella is a beach movie.

From The Archives Issue 794: September 3, 1998