If you’ve ever taken a screenwriting class (which I have) or attended a screenwriting festival (which I have), a good chunk of the story ideas you hear from people are either romantic comedies or romantic dramas. Every single one of these ideas sound exactly alike. For some reason, however, the writer believes they can offer something no one else can. So I’m sure when Theodore Witcher, the director of Love Jones, came up with the idea for his film, he figured he was going to give the world a fresh take on the overplayed genre. Perhaps he felt that if he shared some of his personal experiences with love in his story, it would somehow make for a more authentic romantic story. Whatever Witcher’s intentions or motivations, I have to say that despite its totally predictable plot, Love Jones altogether works because it makes up for its lack of originality with good acting, good chemistry, great dialogue, and beautiful cinematography.

Love Jones is set in the great city of Chicago, which to me has established itself as the preferable city over New York City to set romantic films. Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) is a budding writer who is about to write his first novel. Darius is a sort of bachelor bohemian who likes to hang out with his friends (Isaiah Washington, Bill Bellamy, and Leonard Roberts) at a place called The Sanctuary where he does live mic poetry readings. One night at his hangout, Darius meets Nina Mosley (Nia Long) and they begin to talk. Having just broken an engagement, Nina, a struggling photographer, is at first hesitant to get involved in another relationship. However, one thing leads to another and Darius and Nina fall in love. If you’ve seen one romantic movie, you’ve seen them all and you very well know how the rest of this story plays out.

I was a bit surprised by Love Jones. I have said this before (most recently in my review of Guinevere), but I’m not one to seek out romantic films. This isn’t because I’m a guy and I find this material sappy. I’ve seen many movies in this genre that I consider to be among my very favorite. I don’t want to rehash my gripes with this genre, but my main issue with these types of movies is that they all follow the same formula. They are content with giving audiences to what amounts to be the equivalent of trashy romance novels. Although I enjoyed Love Jones, it too offers the same formula that every other romantic movie does. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl have problems. Boy and girl get back together and live happily ever after. The end. I guess one might say that if you don’t follow this formula, then you can’t really classify your movie as being ‘romantic.’ No matter how you cut it, you must have a boy and a girl fall in love. In order to have a conflict in your story so you don’t bore your audience, you must have the boy and girl go through complications. And in the end, you must have them fall back in love because, after all, it’s a love story and that’s what love is all about. I accept all of that. However, as Woody Allen has proven with films such as Annie Hall and Paul Thomas Anderson showed us with Punch-Drunk Love, its HOW you present this formula that makes the difference between a memorable romantic movie and a shitty one.

First and foremost, without chemistry between the two lead actors, you can kiss your love story goodbye and no amount of screenwriting talent will compensate for a lack of chemistry. I can’t imagine there being anything more important than making sure that your two leads click with each other and especially with the audience. Fortunately, Nia Long and Larenz Tate are natural together and you completely buy their relationship. I was happy when they were together and frustrated when complications caused their relationship to fall apart. I wanted to see them push through their problems and get back together. After seeing Tate’s psycho killer from Menace II Society and Long in Boyz in the Hood, its weird to see these two actors play such polar opposite roles here, which goes to show the range of talent each actor possesses. Tate is especially strong as Darius. He delivers a natural performance that’s at once vulnerable and cool. You can see in his face the thoughts running through his character’s mind and the emotions he’s trying to hide when he’s hurt. I have not seen Tate in many films, but from what I have seen of him in Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, he is quite a talented individual who knows how to well express the nuances of his characters. As for Nia Long, she too does a fine job here even though I felt the stronger character and the stronger performance belonged to Tate. However, I will say that Long looks stunning in every shot she’s in. I don’t mean to minimize her acting efforts by implying that her main contribution to the film was to look good, but that certainly did not hurt in buying into the characters’ relationship.

What stands Love Jones apart from the formulaic pack of romantic movies is its intelligence. The writing is sharp and smart, which is so refreshing for this type of movie. Witcher wisely didn’t dumb his film down for the audience and instead gives us characters who talk about Mozart, jazz, and philosophy. I know these conversation topics sound pretentious and the kind of shit you would hear in some college cafe, but its not. The characters are all working Chicagoans who are well read without taking on any airs or being too serious. The conversations are interesting to listen to and you feel a strong sense of camaraderie between all the characters. Moreover, the dialogue serves the story rather than go off into the sort of unrelated tangents that you find in Kevin Smith films.

I mentioned that Love Jones was set in Chicago. I assume the director is from the Windy City and it shows based on the various settings he picked for his shots. There is some nice lighting work in this movie that not only adds to the romantic style of the movie, but it also casts the city in an almost magical light. Something else that really stood out for me was the film’s musical soundtrack. I’m glad that for once the director didn’t feel the need to fill the entire soundtrack with R&B and hip-hop music. I’m not sure whether studios or the filmmakers decide that just because you’re dealing with an all-black cast, then you must either have R&B or hip-hop in your soundtrack. The music is mainly jazz and again, this adds tremendously to the film’s romantic vibe.

Finally, I just want to comment on how refreshing it is to see such an intelligent film be added to black cinema. Black cinema suffers from a woeful lack of quality filmmakers. Because of this, the genre is stuck with endless Tyler Perry movies. I also think that black filmmakers and/or studios feel compelled to limit black cinema to either movies about gang violence, racism, or slapstick-style humor. I hoped that filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers would have inspired a whole new generation of black filmmakers, but I have yet to see this. With that in mind, its nice to see a film like Love Jones make itself a worthy addition to black cinema.