March 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Note to Madonna: If and when you make another movie — and judging from your latest, you should quit while you’re behind — don’t embrace a story that markedly more talented actresses have tackled before you.

I’m talking, of course, about Hollywood’s latest stock scenario, in which a gay guy and a hetero gal match wits as a fabulously odd couple. The town can’t stop cloning the idea, thanks to the appeal Julia Roberts exuded opposite the equally appealing Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding. The territory has been reworked with varying results in The Object of My Affection, with Jennifer Aniston playing an improbably unattached pregnant woman longing for her gay best buddy, and the NBC comedy Will & Grace, where the titular just-bitchy-pals couple is so colorless, the show should be handed over to their sidekicks and retitled Jack & Karen.

In the newest and certainly flimsiest branch of this post- nuclear-family tree, The Next Best Thing, Everett stars as a cattier, less elegant version of the best friend he played in Wedding. He’s Robert, a perfectly chiseled landscaper whom we’re supposed to believe can’t even conceive of having a meaningful relationship with another man. Instead, he finds fulfillment after he gets tipsy and accidentally fathers a son with the serially single Abbie (Madonna).

The drunken buildup to their fateful sex act, full of wince-inducing pratfalls as they topple and smash the belongings of the fastidious gay couple whose house they’re swanning around in, plays like a strange homage to 1930s musicals. And like the leading lady in some ’40s tearjerker, Robert gives up the trappings of what he considers an oh-so-empty lifestyle to help raise little Sam (charming newcomer Malcolm Stumpf), only to end up in a nasty custody battle once Abbie gets engaged to a hunky businessman (a suave Benjamin Bratt).

While Everett’s charm almost carries the climactic rambling plea for single gay dads’ rights — one of several Kramer vs. Kramer tacks taken by screenwriter Tom Ropelewski (Look Who’s Talking Now) — Madonna fails to flesh out her character in the slightest. She plays a yoga instructor, natch, and so has lots of opportunities to show off just how effortlessly she can contort her disciplined body into pretzel poses. Director John Schlesinger, a long way from his late-’60s career highs of Darling and Midnight Cowboy, dutifully frames her figure in many an admiring long shot. But when he comes in for gauzy close-ups, Madonna can barely muster even the rudiments of human expression. Whether she’s laughing, crying, or, in her best scene, wistfully assaying herself in a mirror as she pulls her breasts and her eyes taut against signs of aging (”1989,” she says, then ”1999” as she lets go), her face remains a hapless blank. She’s clearly full of good intentions; too bad she’s lacking discernible emotions. C-

107 minutes
Illeana Douglas
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