Looking For Mr. Right

To the crowds of women who made it the No. 1 movie in the country when it opened, Waiting to Exhale isn't just a holiday entertainment; it's an oasis in the middle of the desert. And when you're parched, the water doesn't have to be Evian. The success of this adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel- and the talk-back-to-the-screen relish it elicits from its target audience-is a measure of how neglected the black-middle-class female experience has been on film. Successful black women pop up primarily as window dressing in mainstream movies-think Anna Deavere Smith as a White House aide in "The American President." Small wonder that when Whitney Houston was cast as the object of desire in the amiably trashy "The Bodyguard," the box office exceeded all expectations. Black audiences, oversupplied with images of young, armed men in the 'hood, are hungry for glamorous self-reflections.

The mirror that actor turned director Forest Whitaker holds up in "Waiting to Exhale" is as glossy as those Technicolor women's movies turned out by producer Ross Hunter in the '50s ("Imitation of Life," "All That Heaven Allows"). Whitney Houston's Savanna, driving a silver Firebird, tools into Phoenix, Ariz., to start a new life. Angela Bassett's Bernadine lives in a sumptuous home with walk-in closets big enough in which to park that Pontiac. Lela Rochon's Robin is a dressed-for-success career woman. Loretta Devine's Gloria owns the hip beauty salon where her three friends come to prepare themselves for the quest that dominates this story--the search for Mr. Right.

"Waiting to Exhale" takes its old-fashioned soap-opera formula and refurbishes it for the age of Oprah. What that means is that while the script by McMillan and Ronald Bass serves up moonstruck romantic fantasies, it speaks in the language of self-empowerment and is fueled with an undercurrent of rage. The movie is torn: it wants to celebrate female self-sufficiency, but every woman in it defines herself in terms of men. With two glowingly idealized exceptions (played by Gregory Hines and an uncredited Wesley Snipes), the men these women pursue are woefully unworthy of their love. Boy-crazy Robin is the blindest, careering from cracksnorting Troy (Mykelti Williamson) to pudgy, clumsy Michael (Wendell Pierce) to old unreliable Russell (the actor named Leon). Sleek Savanna has no better luck with self-enamored Lionel (Jeffrey D. Sams) or married man Kenneth (Dennis Haysbert), who says he'll leave his wife.

Bernadine is in the most pain. She's just been dumped by her rich husband, who's trying to screw her out of the fortune she helped him build and has left her for his young blond bookkeeper. Her revenge begins with the burning of his car and clothes. Only the sweet, overweight single mom Gloria gets her knight in shining armor-the mellow widower (Hines) who moves in next door. The two good men in McMillan's tale have either dead or dying wives, and their goodness is revealed by their ability to keep their pants on.

The trouble with the movie's parade of cardboard men isn't just that they squelch any possibility of romantic interest; they make our heroines seem foolishly adolescent for pursuing them. Only when they are in each other's company do we get a glimpse of who these women are. The real juice in this broad, glitzy drama is in its sisterly complaint, the heroines' sassy, sexually specific assessment of their romantic plight. But except for one drunken birthday celebration, these four actresses didn't convince me they were inseparable buddies- especially Houston, who seems adrift on her own private cloud. What saves "Waiting to Exhale" from terminal clunkiness is its ability to see the humor in all this misplaced yearning. At such moments, anyone who has ever found themselves furiously pursuing Mr. or Ms. Wrong will laugh with rueful self-awareness at this report from the sexual battlefront.