He treated me like a lady,” says Whitney Houston’s Savannah about an apparently nice guy who turns out to be just another dog in Waiting to Exhale, an adaptation of Terry McMillan’s 1992 best-seller about four African-American women. This notion of being treated well — an intense yearning to be loved, respected, and even adored once in a while — is the central theme of Exhale, and it obviously struck a chord with the huge audience of readers who snapped up McMillan’s book.
As a movie, Exhale features a strong cast headed up by Angela Bassett as Bernadine, a devoted wife and mother recently dumped by her husband, a slick, successful businessman (Michael Beach). Bassett, so superlatively steely in What’s Love Got to Do With It and the recent bomb Strange Days, softens her tone here to convey Bernadine’s disappointment, but she also revs up a terrifically vindictive rage as she gets her revenge for Hubby’s disloyalty. Bernadine seeks solace in the company of her best friends, a sassy beautician played by Loretta Devine, a sweet-souled ditz (Lela Rochon), and the determined Savannah, whom Houston portrays with a detachment so cool that it’s occasionally jarring.
The men in these women’s lives tend to be either cads or whiners, with only two fellows — Gregory Hines and an unbilled Wesley Snipes — providing the sort of honesty and comfort these women deserve.
The two most obvious mistakes made by first-time director Forest Whitaker (best known as an actor in such movies as The Crying Game) are that he’s failed to give the movie any sort of narrative drive (the film is mostly a series of self-contained vignettes) and he never makes clear why on earth these women are such close chums. They come from widely different backgrounds and social classes; the only thing they seem to have in common is that they’ve been burned by men.
Waiting to Exhale benefits, however, from its script, written by McMillan with Ronald Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club). McMillan and Bass have retained the book’s bawdy humor and joyful air of just-between-us-girls conspiracy. All of this is set to creamy, dreamy R&B ballads written and produced by Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds, giving Exhale one of the most entertaining soundtracks in quite some time. Devoted fans of the book will heave a sigh of relief for this Exhale, since, despite its flaws, it remains an exhilarating blast.