BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE

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.