The Wood (1999)
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Cast: Sean Nelson, Omar Epps, Richard T. Jones, Taye Diggs, Duane Finley, Trent Cameron, Malinda Williams, Lisaraye, Tamala Jones, Telma Hopkins.
1999 106 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, a mild sex scene, and brief violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 17, 1999.
Although it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference, it is still unfortunate that "The Wood" had to be released only a week after the infinitely funnier and sweeter "American Pie." Both movies concern a group of high school buddies who make a bet/pact to lose their virginity. Not only that, but each follows the same sort of pattern and some scenes that are almost identical (one set in a bedroom, the other involving a parent catching their child doing something, er, embarrassing). Not only that, but both conclude similarly with one of the guys deciding not to tell everyone that he had sex, based on the actual love and respect he has grown for her. Now for the differences between the two. While "American Pie" was raunchy and often downright hilarious, "The Wood" only has a few select amusing moments, doesn't quite capture the realism of being a teenager as well, and feels manufactured. To top it all off, the marginally succeessful scenes depicting them as teens in 1986-1989, are constantly being intercut with the three friends in the present day, which is cause for it to feel severely uneven and disoriented, only an excuse to add the marquee value of Omar Epps and Taye Diggs to the release. Cut out the meaningless wish-wash of the framing story and director Rick Famuyiwa may have had a winner on his hands, but as is, every time I began to get into the characters as teenagers, the film would jerk me back to 1999. For this reason, call it an african-american, male version of 1995's much better, "Now and Then," which at least had the good sense to present the flashback in one long 80-minute stretch, with the present day stuff only coming into play in the first and last ten minutes. My mind floating around from one past movie to the other, I have just discovered that "The Wood" doesn't have one original, distinctive element.
"The Wood," our narrator and central character, Mike (Omar Epps), tells us in the first scene, "isn't what you think. No, it's short for Inglewood, California, where his single mother moved them when he was 14-years-old (Sean Nelson). Quickly becoming friends with Slim (Duane Finley) and Roland (Trent Cameron), they would spend their days off from school hanging out with each other, going to school dances, etc. From the first day he came to town, Mike was completely smitten with the beautiful Alicia (Malinda Williams) who, after a rocky first meeting when he grabbed her booty due to a bet, becomes his good friend through the rest of middle and high school. Back to the present day, Mike and Slim (Richard T. Jones) set off to find Roland (Taye Diggs), who is about to get married in a couple hours. They find him inebriated at the home of his old girlfriend, Tanya (Tamala Jones), and has suddenly gotten cold feet about marrying his fiancee, Lisa (Lisaraye). As the three further reminisce about the "olden days" together, they find that it is important for them to be lifelong friends, and for Roland to take that final step towards becoming the husband to the woman he dearly loves.
Aside from the refreshing idea of showing how your high school romances rarely translate into adulthood, and from refraining to turn into a gritty, violent urban drama as so many "african-american"-oriented pictures do, "The Wood" isn't worth your time, effort, or money, alternately feeling far longer than its 106-minutes, but also coming off as empty. Since the present-day story, as it is, has been stripped down to the bare-bone essentials, and you know from the get-go that it will end with one of the friends finally getting married, there is no particular interest that I could dedicate to those scenes. The flashbacks, although more effective and with a truthful scene here and there (as when Mike loses his virginity to, yep, you guessed it), are also painfully thin and, again, nothing much happens.
As the young Mike, Sean Nelson (1994's "Fresh") acts as the respectable leader of the cast, and he is given a few nice scenes with Alicia (played sweetly by Malinda Williams), as well as one with his mother. Those are actually just about the only performances worth noting. Duane Finley and Trent Cameron, as the young Slim and Roland, are not on view long enough to create much of a personality, and end up feeling like more of an afterthought than real characters. The same goes for the adult actors, Omar Epps, Richard T. Jones, and Taye Diggs, who are only cashing a paycheck here. Blame for the lackluster story and poorly-written characters must go to writer-director Rick Famuyiwa who, judging from this film, unfortunately doesn't appear to have much of a talent in the filmmaking business. Consequently, the film is flatly shot by Steven Bernstein, and no other technical credits make any impact whatsoever.
"The Wood" is the type of film that isn't awful or even bad, but you also just can't seem to get excited about anything in it. It simply sits there, motionless, without any notable attributes to recommend, or that are even worth mentioning. It's unfortunate, but it's the truth.
©1999 by Dustin Putman