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What Makes Stella Run?

In How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Angela Bassett flips her braids and keeps her poise as Whoopi Goldberg all but steals the movie out from under her. If only there were something to steal. Based on a nearly unreadable best-seller by Terry McMillan, who shares screenwriting credit with Ron Bass, Stella more or less works the same terrain as Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, a fiendishly self-conscious weepy about an affair between an older woman and a younger man, though without an iota of its wit or visual intelligence. In Sirk's film, Jane Wyman plays a well-heeled 40ish widow with two grown children who falls for her young Thoreau-reading gardener, played with impeccable rigidity by Rock Hudson. Stella, in turn, is a 40-year-old divorcee with a Martha Stewart lifestyle - immaculate mini-manse with no visible staff, low-maintenance child, well-toned musculature - who tumbles for a 20-year-old during a Jamaican furlough.

As in All That Heaven Allows, it takes Stella half the movie to realize her dreams - personified by her physically vigorous lover, here played by newcomer Taye Diggs - and to trounce her self-doubts (and those of her family). Bassett is at a much greater disadvantage than Wyman, however, because she's forced to utter lines such as, "This morning I found Cocoa Puffs in the bed," share screen time with Goldberg (too big a name to do the Eve Arden-in-dreads bit convincingly), and regularly slip into color-coordinated, swoosh-covered running outfits. Burdened with a character with no discernible inner life, Bassett, along with the rest of the very capable cast, is done no favors by first-time director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, whose lack of interest in Stella's story is matched only by his notable lack of energy behind the camera.

So what makes Stella run? The obvious answer seems to be the absence of a man in her life. And since McMillan is profoundly ambivalent about men (she isn't too crazy about women, either - a section in the book devoted to Stella's revulsion at female body odors reads like something out of the Hustler joke page, minus the laughs), this might suggest a minor logistical conundrum for what is essentially an upscale Harlequin fantasy. McMillan's answer to that conundrum, in her novel and in the script, is the impossibly named Winston Shakespeare, an island Adonis whose anatomy is as sculpted as his personality is amorphous, making him ideal for a mass-market romance and perhaps the sack, if not necessarily real life. Still, Stella swoons for Winston early, then frets the rest of the movie away over a two-decade age difference that would be irrelevant if she were a man.

In both the Sirk movie and this newer model, the age gap keeps the lovers on edge. In truth, though, what threatens the couple's happiness in All That Heaven Allows is the bourgeois status quo - a status quo Stella cleaves fiercely to its designer bosom. Which is precisely the point of this film and, arguably, of McMillan's raging success. Despite her occasional go-girl sassing and the nearly all-black world she inhabits, Stella is not at all different from the kind of upper-middle-class martyrs Lana Turner once played, women who shed glycerin tears on their Edith Head originals as the orchestra swelled to a glorious crescendo. Does it mean anything, really, that this time the beautiful martyr is wearing Nike and braids? It depends on who's watching. How Stella Got Her Groove Back is the first Hollywood movie since Mahogany that centers on a black woman who doesn't spend all her time fending off either white oppression or no-good black men. That may not be progress, but then again, neither is it The Color Purple.