Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers
Rated PG-13 for Brief Strong Language, Smoking, a Violent Image, and a Drug Reference
There's a reason why I wait until December 31 to compile my Top and Bottom 10 lists. It's when all the Oscar bait comes out, so it becomes a scramble to see it all before the deadline. For example, I have yet to see "La La Land" (my family saw it yesterday, but I got no sleep on Christmas Eve), "Manchester By the Sea," "Fences," and "Moonlight." I haven't seen "Assassin's Creed," "Moonlight," or "Why Him?" either, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that they won't be on the former list. The latter, I'm not so sure.
It's not often that I see a movie expecting it's going to end up on my Top 10 list only to find out it will be associated with crap like "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising." That isn't as big of an insult as you might think. There's no way to put it nicely: this movie sucks. It's badly written, flatly acted, and almost never interesting.
"Southside with You" is the second movie made about a sitting U.S. President. Unlike the first, "W.," which covered about 30 to 40 years, writer/director Richard Tanne goes with the recent trend set by "Lincoln" and others and keeps things very specific. The movie details what happened when Barack Obama went on his first date with Michelle Robinson, who would later become his wife and First Lady. It wouldn't be a bad idea had anything interesting happened on that date or had the future First Couple been more effectively realized. But in veering away from any melodrama and concentrating on the minutiae, "Southside with You" becomes less like "Before Sunrise" and more like "Greetings from Tim Buckley." I could end this review right there.
I'll give Tanne credit for his casting. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers look uncannily like younger versions of Barack and Michelle. However that's as far as the casting success goes. While they may look the part, they don't act the part. Neither actor gives a performance that's ever more than acceptable. Frankly, they're so dull that it's impossible to understand why anyone thought an audience could be interested in watching a movie about them? Few people are more intriguing than the Obamas, but these two are boring that looking at internet memes was a better use of my time. Who cares what happens to these two?
Roger Ebert, a far better film critic than I'll ever be, frequently said that the more precisely defined a character is, the more interesting he or she will be. It's true. For all its faults, "Crumb" was at least interesting because I knew exactly who Crumb was. That he turned out to be a person I would never want to meet is beside the point. Terry Zwigoff presented him with enough clarity that I understood him and how he saw the world. With this movie, the two lead characters have the depth and specificity of the Atlantic Ocean. Change their names to John and Betsy Dinkbulb and nothing would change.
Anyone who has seen the Obamas on TV knows of their innate charisma. Both of them are smart people who can command the room simply by walking in. Neither actor has that quality. Michelle Obama is one of the most well-liked First Ladies, but you wouldn't know that watching Tika Sumpter (who co-produced the film) play her. Michelle Robinson is a strong woman with a steel reserve, which is fine. But in the film she comes across as a heartless bitch. Worst of all, the film is told from her point of view. Parker Sawyers is better, displaying a little charm and humor but not much else.
What's really shocking is how little of a point there is to this movie. I didn't learn a thing about either person when they were my age, nor did I see anything that could convince me that they would move into the White House less than 20 years later. Frankly, it never convinced me these two had any feelings for each other. Any picture of the Obamas displays true love and affection for each other. The chemistry between Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers is frozen solid.
Worthwhile moments in this movie are few. There's a conversation where Michelle explains what it's like to be a black woman in a white man's world that rings true and their family backstories are well written. But that takes up about five minutes of screen time. The rest of the movie is scenes that fall flat (and never end) and characters we don't care about.
Liberal or conservative, skip this movie.