Tag Archives: D+

BAMBOOZLED

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D+

If Mel Brooks had tacked an hourlong condemnation of the Holocaust onto “The Producers” (1968), complete with shots of concentration camps and mass graves, the result might have resembled Spike Lee’s deeply impassioned but extremely disappointing new film. The first half of “Bamboozled” is a dark satire about the propensity of the television industry either to ignore African-American realities or to depict them stupidly; it’s rather ragged and too often hamfisted, but also sporadically penetrating, funny and provocative. Then, however, the picture goes into polemical mode, abandoning any satirical perspective and adopting in its place a clumsily melodramatic tone; by the denouement there’s more death and gunplay than in a Tarantino flick, and the air has become thick with portentious and pretentious didacticism. The scalpel that Lee employs at the beginning, though not ideally sharp, has been transformed into a bludgeon by the close.

“Bamboozled” focuses on Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an effete, Harvard-educated fellow who’s the sole black executive at a TV network; badgered by his fast-talking, obtuse boss (Michael Rapaport) to come up with some new and exciting programming, Pierre, enraged at the suggestion that he might be out of touch with his race, sarcastically pitches the notion of a minstrel show starring two street entertainers whom he’s renamed Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep ‘n Eat (Tommy Davidson). He expects that the offensiveness of the concept will shame his superiors, but much to his chagrin not only do they embrace the idea, but the show turns out to be an astronomical hit, a smash which has people of all races eagerly adopting black-face makeup in the latest pop-culture fad.

So far, so good–the plot hinges on the notion of unexpected consequences in producing a piece of entertainment, much as “The Producers” did. But even in this segment of the picture, there are major problems. Wayans, using an exaggeratedly adenoidal voice and extravagant hand gestures, is more a sketch caricature than a credible human being as Delacroix, and Rapaport is aggressively unamusing as his boss. There are also difficulties with the figure of Pierre’s lovestruck assistant, played by Jada Pinkett Smith; she alternately supports Delacroix’s scheme and then bitterly opposes it, so that we’re never certain where the character is supposed to stand. Nor are the excerpts we’re shown from the minstrel show funny enough to convince us that the program could ever become the runaway success it’s claimed to be; the same problem afflicted the bits of “Springtime for Hitler” we were shown in “The Producers,” but the effect here is even worse. On the other hand, Davidson (fresh from rehab, one suspects) is energetic, and Glover (the sensation of Broadway’s “Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk”) dances wonderfully and manages to bring a hint of pathos to his character.

Everything collapses, however, after protests occur against the program (Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran offer cameos that are singularly unimpressive), and Pinkett’s rapper brother, played by Mos Def, plots some very public revenge against its creators. The mood turns sour and unbearably preachy, and the characters are made to act in ways that exhibit no consistency or sense. A final montage showing degrading portrayals of African-Americans in American media over the decades is well-done, but renders the piece even more obvious and hectoring.

The fault lies with Lee, of course: he remains an exceptionally gifted filmmaker, but his writing and helming here demonstrate no penchant for satire; and his decision to use digital cameras leaves the picture with a bleached, washed-out look that is extraordinarily unattractive from any artistic perspective (too many sequences, moreover, are badly oversaturated with light). “Bamboozled” surely impresses a viewer with Lee’s sense of outrage and commitment, but one’s admiration for his goals can’t compensate for a final product that’s shapeless, logy and, by the close, crushingly unsubtle. His ability is on far better display in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” which proves not only far funnier but somehow more authentic in its presentation of the African-American experience. There’s a brief scene in “Bamboozled” showing Delacroix’s father, an old-fashioned comic, doing a standup routine; it has the same verve and style that the four stars exhibit in “Kings,” and, truth to tell, it’s the best part of the new picture. Otherwise Lee’s intensity overwhelms his talent; no amount of clever camera tricks and jagged editing can conceal the flimsiness of concept and tonal incongruity that mark “Bamboozled.”

BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE

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D+

Martin Lawrence has always been a sort of cut-rate version of
Eddie Murphy, and with this new vehicle he seems to be trying
simultaneously to copy the erstwhile SNL star and to sneak
ahead of him in the summer movie sweepstakes. In “Big Momma’s
House” Lawrence plays Malcolm Turner, an FBI agent who, we’re
shown in a bit upfront, is an absolute master of disguise,
becoming other people through the amazing use of latex masks no
less adroitly than Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt does in “Mission:
Impossible 2.” (Dare we say that the season’s cinematic cliche
is already clear?) In an attempt to catch Lester, a nasty
escaped con who’s on the trail of the loot from his last heist,
Turner and his partner John (Paul Giamatti) are assigned to
keep tabs on Big Momma (Ella Mitchell), to whose place Lester’s
old girlfriend Sherry (Nia Long), suspected of having been in
league with the con in the robbery, may be fleeing with her
son Trent (Jascha Washington). The assignment is to stake out
Big Momma’s house, watch for Sherry to appear there, and wait
for Lester to show up to be nabbed. When Big Momma is called
away, however, Turner impulsively decides to impersonate her
in order to encourage Sherry to settle in; and predictable
complications ensue as they get to know one another and have
to interact with the locals.

“Big Momma’s House” was obviously devised in imitation of
Murphy’s smash hit “The Nutty Professor,” which was similarly
based on humor-through-makeup and lots of jokes about obesity,
and rushed into release to beat the sequel, coming later this
summer, in which Eddie will apparently play all the professor’s
kinfolk (including, surely, a surly matriarch like the one
depicted here). It also bears a strong resemblance to Robin
Williams’ “Mrs. Doubtfire,” a Chris Columbus movie for which–
no doubt fortuitously–Raja Gosnell, the director of this
flick, acted as editor. Indeed its derivative quality is so
strong that watching it for the first time already seems
cinematically redundant. Basically the picture is a series of
crude sketches about on the level of a Fox network situation
comedy–the phony Big Momma tries to cook, she has to deliver
a baby, she deals roughly with a karate instructor, she
“witnesses” in church, she plays basketball with Trent, she
has to fend off the advances of a randy suitor, and so on–
intermittently interrupted when Turner appears as his true self,
supposedly in the form of a likable handyman, in order to
romance Sherry and bond paternally with her boy. The big, not
so surprising, denouement comes when the real Big Momma returns
home unexpectedly during a party, an event that’s also crashed,
again predictably, by the awful Lester; and an epilogue tells
us whether Turner, Sherry and Trent will get together as a
family despite his earlier suspicions of her and her
disillusionment when she discovers the reasons behind his
impersonation.

If you have even the slightest uncertainty about how things
turn out, the picture may amuse you, as it did a goodly number
of the crowd at the pre-opening screening this reviewer
attended. If not, perhaps you’ll nonetheless enjoy the
flick’s incessant parade of jokes about flatulence and obesity,
or the suggestive sight of Turner smarmily ogling Sherry in
his guise as her ostensible protector, or the farcical action
moments, or the intrusions of sappy sentiment. (Once again,
the preview audience lapped it all up.) But if none of these
apply, you’ll probably find “Big Momma’s House” almost
insufferably coarse and shrill, as well as frantically unfunny;
the only segment that might generate an honest laugh is the
saccharine conclusion, which is so manipulative as to be
risible. It’s not the performers’ fault: Lawrence works hard
to be both uproarious and lovable, Long is shapely and pleasant,
Washington isn’t a overly irritating tyke, and the supporting
players seem amiable and attractive. (The sole exceptionn is
Giamatti, who’s distinctly pallid as Turner’s partner.)
What’s to blame is a script which seems to have been cobbled
together from bits and pieces from previous movies and from
the trash bin of the writers who labored on “In Living Color.”

“Big Momma’s House” closes with the real matriarch belting out
a hymn in happy church finale; but whatever the old adage might
say, in this case the fat lady doesn’t so much sing as the
picture croaks.