For its first half, The Next Best Thing is like a bad episode of "Will and Grace." Then, when I least suspected it, the movie started to work for me--not as a comedy but as a gay weepie. Rupert Everett and Madonna star as best friends who, in a moment of drunken passion, conceive a child. The fact that he's gay doesn't stop them from setting up a house together, and everything goes just fine, in a Heather Has Two Mommies kind of way, until mommy meets a new daddy. Suddenly, Everett's Robert is like an uncle once removed...from his own son. When the Gay Lifetime Channel is launched, surely this is the first movie they'll show. The second half would be even more effective if the first half weren't so clumsy. Madonna, who looks terrific in her hippie-chick hair, doesn't have the right rhythms for romantic comedy; she enunciates too well and keeps lapsing into this theatrical accent that she must associate with quality acting. Everett has a hard time of it too, hampered by a script that wants him to be gay but not too gay. When he puts on a Judy Garland record to introduce himself to Abbie's new boyfriend (Benjamin Bratt), it's a joke; he's trying to freak the guy out. And we're supposed to be relieved, I think, that he doesn't really like Judy Garland. God forbid.
Like so many mainstream movies about gay people, The Next Best Thing has its heart in the right place and its head somewhere in the clouds. But the heart is enough to carry us through when Abbie inexplicably turns into a cold, heartless bitch and tries to keep Robert from his son. It doesn't matter how clumsily this is set up, the pain is real, and I heard quite a bit of sniffling as Robert fought for the right to be his son's father. Which is why I decided to forgive the movie for its inherent conservatism. I'm sure it never even occurred to the filmmakers that a flaming queen might make a perfectly fine dad. Compared to a movie about that guy, this one is the next best thing.