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Could there be any less appealing image than that of an obese, dress-wearing Martin Lawrence scratching his ass, as featured on the poster for Big Momma's House? The idea of sitting through any movie promoted in such a fashion brings to mind the hideously awful It's Pat: The Movie or a never-ending sketch featuring Jamie Foxx's old In Living Color character, Wanda the Ugly Woman, whom we were always asked to laugh at and then feel sorry for, though Foxx was clearly condescending to the character. Lawrence is certainly not unfamiliar with drag, having played several female characters on his defunct sitcom Martin, but those bits tended to go on too long, despite logging no more than a few minutes of TV time. The man is capable of turning a bit into a lot.
Lawrence has yet to star in a film as good as he can be when he turns down the volume; he doesn't tell jokes so much as he beats you to death with a punch line or a screeched whaaaaazup. He was at his best (meaning, his most restrained) in Michael Bay's debut, 1995's Bad Boys, in which he played a cop happy to stay out of Will Smith's way. Then, that film was so cynical and hollow, it rendered even Smith as nothing more than indispensable prop; Lawrence had no chance. Since then, he's played con (Life, Nothing to Lose) or cop (Blue Streak, Big Momma's House), the latter of which is almost like casting Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist in a James Bond film. Cops rarely get as "dehydrated" as the trouble-prone Martin, who has more public-relations problems than Exxon.
The good news is that Big Momma's House is nowhere near as bad as it looks from a distance, although that isn't saying too much. It offers your basic Saturday Night Live premise: Fat person does funny stuff, gets laughs. The whole thing is based upon the stereotype of elderly black matriarchs as tough ol' broads who take no guff, to such a degree that even a macho cop dressed as one doesn't seem out of place, no matter how aggressive he gets playing basketball or beating up a bullying karate instructor.
Directed by Raja Gosnell
Screenplay by Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymer
Starring Martin Lawrence, Nia Long, Paul Giamatti, and Ella Mitchell
Lawrence is Malcolm, a master of disguise--which anyone who saw Blue Streak will take as oxymoron--partnered with the nebbishy John (Paul Giamatti, whose resemblance to Rob Schneider has never been more apparent) to catch a violent criminal who has just broken out of jail. Knowing that the bad guy's looking to find his girlfriend, Sherry (Nia Long), Malcolm and John stake out the house of Sherry's grandmother Hattie "Big Momma" Mae in case Sherry tries to contact her. Sherry does, but does so when Big Momma has just left town. So, in order to make sure Sherry shows up and delivers a possible lead, Malcolm decides that Big Momma has to be there one way or another. Convenient, ain't it, that he's the master of disguise?
Standard-issue gags ensue, from the obligatory fat-person-on-the-toilet gag to the obligatory lecherous-old-man gag. There are some moments of genuine humor, though, mostly courtesy of Anthony Anderson (also the comic relief in Romeo Must Die) as a cowardly security guard who stumbles onto Big Momma's secret identity. But Lawrence, to his credit, actually does his best to humanize the role of Big Momma, rather than play it as a leering caricature (although some caricature is inevitable based upon appearance alone). A scene of Malcolm as Big Momma called upon to testify in a church is the highlight of the film, and Malcolm, out of costume, also gets some nice bonding scenes with Sherry and her son. That these scenes are played for gentle laughs rather than bathetic tears is a major plus.
The direction by Raja Gosnell (Home Alone 3) is for the most part unremarkable--if nothing else, it does prove anyone can make a movie--though he shows a real flair in the handful of suspenseful scenes involving the evil ex-boyfriend. Perhaps he might try a horror movie next time out. Or perhaps it's tough to find anything scarier than Martin Lawrence in drag. And the script, from Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymes, both of them sitcom veterans, might as well be nonexistent. Lawrence probably improvised much of the comedy himself, and the partner dynamic that's established in the beginning--John draws his strength from his family, Malcolm from the fact that he has none--is never returned to. Yes, Malcolm bonds with Sherry and her son, but there's never a moment when we see that they've changed him, unless you count his salivating over Sherry in her underwear. And John never so much as calls the family he's allegedly devoted to.
Everything else here has been done before (mostly in Mrs. Doubtfire, The Nutty Professor, Stakeout, and any Chris Farley movie), even down to the theme song, which samples Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," something 3rd Bass did back in 1991. Not that anyone's looking to this film for originality anyway. Still, there's not much point in shelling out full price for Big Momma's House: Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps is due for release in a couple of months, and the entirety of its trailer (about nothing but old and fat people) is wittier than this entire movie (though the scene in which Murphy goes down on himself is narcissism at its most, well, gross). If Big Momma's House isn't as bad as you imagined, then you've no imagination at all.
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