Nothing to Lose

The black-white buddy movie "Nothing to lose" is a lazy exercise in tired racial cliches.

By Laura Miller

Published August 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the virtues of "Nothing to Lose," a new comedy starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence, are few: It has Tim Robbins and it has, as filmgoers say, "some good lines." The rest of the movie isn't awful, but it is lazy, mediocre and contrived in ways all too typical of Hollywood product. "Nothing to Lose" hews close to the formula for interracial buddy pictures, and because it's so thin, the skeleton of that formula shows through its skin, a rickety vision that testifies to how feebly pop culture handles matters of race.

Robbins plays Nick Beam, a nice-guy ad exec who adores his wife (Kelly Preston). One day he comes home from work early and glimpses her in bed with another man. He staggers out to his car and drives the streets of Los Angeles in aimless despair, until he finds himself the victim of an attempted carjacking by Lawrence. "Boy, did you pick the wrong guy," he growls, and takes off into the desert with Lawrence as his unwilling companion. The two men bicker, tangle with a pair of nasty highway criminals and eventually bond, hatching a scheme to burglarize Nick's boss, who Nick believes has cuckolded him.

But the plot of "Nothing to Lose" simply provides the premise for a series of sketches, wisecracks and put-downs -- the "good lines" flaunted in the movie's trailer. It's the sort of movie (like its ancestors, "48 Hours" and the "Lethal Weapon" series) that leans heavily on its actors' charisma, and the results are lopsided, to say the least. Robbins' immensely likable screen presence has warmed up chillier exercises than this, but Lawrence is a horrid, glaring little man, a performer who seems determined to win by force the attention he can never capture by charm. He's always angrily thrusting himself in the audience's face, as if he suspects (correctly) that we'll forget about him if he lets up for even a moment.

You can guess the rest. Robbins plays the quintessential white guy -- a square straight arrow -- to Lawrence's wise-ass, street-smart black. The white guy gets to lecture the black guy about the immorality of armed robbery ("You are a bad person") and the black guy gets to ridicule the white guy for his wimpy naiveti ("You don't have the respect of your woman"). The white guy gets to be virtuous and the black guy gets to be cool -- that's the trade-off Hollywood offers the races when it's not delivering sanctimonious parables about how we all should learn to get along. It can even seem like a good deal when the black guy is played by Eddie Murphy, an actor who invited audiences to relish the sly cunning percolating beneath his smooth, almond-eyed exterior -- who, black or white, wouldn't want to be Murphy's fine self? But the shrill, unpleasant Lawrence only serves to accentuate who really gets the short end of the stick in the buddy movie bargain.

Perhaps aware of this (or perhaps attempting to placate Robbins' progressive politics), writer-director Steve Oedekerk asks us to believe a couple of implausible things about Lawrence's character. The first is that he's an electrical engineering whiz driven to robbery because absolutely no one will hire him -- although it never occurs to him to use his skill to commit crimes less dangerous (and cruel) and more lucrative than carjacking. Oedekerk would also have us believe that the callous, boastful, cowardly, selfish buffoon we see in the movie's first half has a loving wife, two cuddly kids and a big fat mama -- all stashed in an apartment that, with its afghans, upright piano and dowdy sofa, looks like the set of an August Wilson play. Lawrence's only convincing moments in "Nothing to Lose" are when he's bullying someone or pouting, and they're completely impossible to reconcile with the scenes of him as a warm, concerned daddy. Even if Lawrence were as talented as Murphy, he couldn't manage the tortured contradictions written into this role. His character feels like the patchwork creation of several competing agendas, not a human being.

The racially mixed audience at a recent preview screening of "Nothing to Lose" hooted gleefully every time Lawrence revved up his Ebonics and put Robbins in his place. But they laughed just as loud during a scene in which Lawrence emerges from a car and dances comically around a diner parking lot wailing "My ass done fall asleep! I dint know an ass could fall asleep!" -- or at the aforementioned big fat mama, whose immediate response to any kind of trouble is to slap every grown man within reach. Shades of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima! It's downright creepy how often "Nothing to Lose" harks back to minstrel shows, but it's even creepier that no one, black or white, seems to notice or mind it, not even Lawrence, who probably considers himself a shining example of successful black manhood. The movie's lame, tossed-off references to job discrimination don't hide the fact that he's essentially playing court jester to Robbins' lanky aristocrat, trading full humanity and dignity for sassing rights -- and a few good lines.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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