Gender wars

Personals digs deeper than most relationship films

Relationship films are the 21st century's "Punch and Judy" shows; sadistic bloodsport where audiences guffaw over the sucker punches of narcissistic young urbans on the prowl. Such films claim to be about one gender's search for true love but more often seem designed to confirm their disdain for the opposite sex. Even Nature Channel animal attacks and eviscerations have begun to seem more civilized than the brutal way male and female circle each other in the dating game. An uncharacteristically endearing answer to such blunt-edged misanthropy, Personals stars Malik Yoba as Keith, a smart, accomplished writer for The Village Voice on a bit of a downslide. His personal life spent juggling two different women has finally taken its toll; Keith loses both women and is fired from his Easy Street job. But after a string of lame story ideas, Keith finally strikes upon one that piques his editor's interest: He'll chronicle his 30 dates with 30 women over the course of a month. Setting out on his babe anthropology assignment, Keith takes out an ad in the Voice personals, "If you're down for an adventure and you've got your own teeth ... "

Personals traffics in some of the caricatured comedy of other relationship films: the revolving door of freaks and nuts Keith encounters each night as he researches his story over cocktails and dinner. There's the party girl Loquitia with gold earrings as big as ship anchors, introduced with her own boogie soundtrack, who quizzes Keith before perusing the dinner menu, "So, you ain't cheap is you?" and the black nationalist who will mix Bailey's and cream but has no use for mixed-race relationships. But Personals manages to render such "types" with some real humor and originality. This carousel of dating "don'ts" could quickly grow tired, but writer and director Michael J. Sargent manages to keep the pace lively and the jokes flowing, though there are definitely weak spots in this comedy that seem more callous than clever, like Veronica, a stereotypical sex-crazed Puerto Rican.

But unlike most films that would play these women for laughs until the "right" one comes along, Personals takes a smarter approach. After adopting a fake jazz musician persona, to protect himself from overzealous chiquitas like Veronica, Keith crosses the line from reporter to cad, using his "story" and his new persona to hide his real interest in playing the field. When he meets a former basketball player who, with great difficulty, makes an agonizing confession, his slippery conscience is at last penetrated.

While similar films like 1999's 20 Dates vilify women (except the eventual "right one") as predatory, money-obsessed and shallow, Personals has Keith do a little soul searching and finds that the loneliness and longing he sees in these women may be closer to his own circumstance than all his macho posturing allows him to admit.

Writer/director Sargent has an agile, imaginative way with dialogue and has coaxed an all-around winning performance from Yoba, who can play the cad and the sensitive guy without seeming disingenuous, only human. And unlike the slash and burn prototypical relationship film, Personals suggests that there is some hope of mending the tattered relationships between men and women.

Personals screens in conjunction with BlackFilmFestAmerica, an independent movie tour that includes Cold Feet, at Magic Johnson Theatre. For information call 866-222-BFFA or visit www.GoSeeBlackMovies.com/BFFA.