Having recently moved from Atlanta to Philly with her daughter and psychiatrist husband Dutch (Raz Adoti), Valerie has given up her own photography studio to help her man pursue his career. But it's quickly clear that things aren't so rosy, and Valerie's suspicions of infidelity mount as the story unfolds. Confusing matters is Dutch's relationship with two high school buddies: flashy Ryan (Leon) is a successful singer, while the unsettling Kevin (Roger Guenveur Smith) has a strange arrangement with wife Monica (Paula Jai Parker), who still holds a torch for Dutch. Trying to help Valerie through it all is pal Zahara (Vivica A. Fox), who introduces Valerie to a new church (with member Patti LaBelle in a small role) and its Women's Faith Fellowship group--which includes a mysterious woman who is clearly hiding something.
There are two films fighting for control here, and unfortunately the weaker one makes more noise. Why the director (Bill Duke) and screenwriter (Aaron Rahsaan Thomas) chose to make this primarily a murder mystery is a mystery unto itself--and a much harder one to solve. It's like there are big neon "foreshadowing" signs constantly flashing here: a preacher's sermon, the women's faith group discussions, the lyrics to one of Ryan's songs, the confessions of Dutch's patient...the script holds your hand as it paints a clear picture of where this is going.
Why else is this story set in the City of Brotherly Love? When Zahara brings gay friend Greg into the church group, you immediately know it's another "clue". His presence prompts some lively discussion with the women's group, and I'd love to watch more of this church chat. While it relies on some stereotypes, it still provides some heated discussion that is far more interesting than the main storyline.
But we jump back to that quickly, where we soon get a fight between Kevin and Monica. He warns her: "We had an agreement, and suddenly you can't deal? I didn't change...you need to change back." It's not like that's spoiling anything; this comes early in the film, and it's quite obvious from Kevin's first scene that he's a homosexual. Smith's exaggerated performance (not in a gay way, but in a creepy, off-putting one) does nothing to help the film, and to make matters worse, many of the actors lack a believable connection with each other, especially the three friends. They don't seem like lifelong buddies who truly know and care about each other. Many of the other performances and situations seem too staged, inserted to "Make a Point!" before moving on to the next scene.
It's a real shame, because there's some true substance and fascinating issues that are just itching to get explored more in this film. The plight of gay African American men to gain acceptance within their own community, the church community's views on tolerance, the "downlow" phenomenon, the pursuit of the American dream...and most importantly, a woman's struggle with her self-worth, purpose and faith after a life-changing discovery. Ellis has some great scenes where she tries to come to terms to what's happening--confronting her belief in God and her own embarrassment.
The film is at its best when it has nothing to do with the mystery, and just lets the unraveling relationship play out--without trying to force suspense. This is pretty heavy stuff its dealing with, and the script doesn't need a flashy puzzle to create interest. And the mystery itself is just too clumsy--there are no surprises and zero suspense as the plot unfolds. The moments where Cover escapes the forced thrills are the strongest ones. This would have been a much stronger picture if it ditched that framework and just focused on these two people and their personal struggles, which are far more intriguing than the telegraphed whodunit. There's heart and soul here, but it's buried beneath unnecessary flash.