A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"The Next Best Thing" is a garage sale of gay issues, harnessed to a plot as exhausted as a junkman's horse. There are times when the characters don't know if they're living their lives or enacting edifying little dramas for an educational film. The screenplay's so evenhanded it has no likable characters, either gay or straight; after seeing this film, I wanted to move to Garry Shandling's world in "What Planet Are You From?," where nobody has sex.
Not that anybody has a lot of sex in this PG-13 film. The story hinges on a murky event that takes place offscreen late one alcoholic night between Abbie (Madonna) and her gay best friend Robert (Rupert Everett). They were both in drunken blackouts, although of course by the next morning they're able to discuss their blackouts with wit and style, unlike your average person, who would be puking. Abbie gets pregnant and decides to have the baby, and Robert announces he will be a live-in father to the child, although he doesn't go so far as to become a husband to its mother.
Both Abbie and Robert are right up to date when it comes to sexual open-mindedness. Robert still dates, and Abbie's OK with that, although when Abbie meets a guy named Ben (Benjamin Bratt), Robert turns into a green-eyed monster. That's because Ben wants to marry Abbie and move to New York, and where would that leave Robert? If you think this movie, which begins as a sexual comedy, is going to end up as a stultifying docudrama about child custody, with big courtroom scenes before the obligatory stern black female judge, you are no more than ordinarily prescient.
The movie's problem is that it sees every side of all issues. It sides with Robert's need to be a father, Benjamin's need to be a husband and lover, and Abbie's need to have a best friend, a husband, a lover, a son and a lawyer. Luckily there is plenty of money for all of this, because Abbie is a yoga instructor and Robert is a gardener, and we know what piles of money you can make in those jobs, especially in the movies. I wish the film had scaled its lifestyles to the realities of service industry workers, instead of having the characters live in the kinds of places where they can dance around the living room to (I am not kidding) Fred Astaire's "Steppin' Out" and have catered backyard birthday parties that I clock at $10,000, easy.