I guess it's only natural that people want to compare Martin Lawrence to Eddie Murphy, with whom Lawrence starred in "Life," one of the more drastically underrated films of 1999. But beyond their skin color and their shared debt to Jerry Lewis (and what American comedian doesn't partake of that?), there aren't really many similarities between them.
In fact, the other star comedian Lawrence most suggests to me is Adam Sandler, which is another way of saying that he's hugely popular but his talents seem modest and I don't really get him. Like Sandler, Lawrence is a funny-looking little overachiever; his round eyes, protuberant ears and peanut head always make his efforts to seem like a too-cool playa type seem faintly ridiculous. I can't quite tell, with either Sandler or Lawrence, whether this element of self-mockery is entirely conscious or intentional. Murphy, on the other hand, is much closer to Jim Carrey. Both are handsome and supremely, almost promiscuously talented, though lately Carrey's film career has begun to display the wandering, unfocused quality Murphy's has had for years. ("Vampire in Brooklyn," anyone?)
Maybe Lawrence and Sandler are lesser performers, judged on some abstract scale, but there's a lot to be said for knowing what your audience wants and delivering it. "Big Momma's House," Lawrence's latest vehicle, is mainly a reheated cross-dressing shtick any number of other actors (including Murphy) have done better. It also gets off to a dismal start, at least by my possibly prudish standards: We're less than 10 minutes into the movie when we're treated to an elegant comedy set piece that sees FBI agent Malcolm Turner (Lawrence) trapped in a bathroom where an enormously fat lady first takes a prodigious dump and then strips naked.
But unlike most commercial comedies, "Big Momma's House" actually gets crisper as it goes along, even if it never rises above amiable, disposable entertainment. Ultimately, Lawrence's relentless good cheer and the affectionate ensemble depiction of a Southern black community had me cackling and stomping my feet along with the rest of the preview audience.
Director Raja Gosnell, a longtime film editor who also helmed "Home Alone 3" (mind you, I don't think I knew there was a "Home Alone 3"), keeps the comic beats coming, transforming Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymer's predictable screenplay into an efficient gag-delivery system. Shortly after Malcolm's unhappy bathroom incident, the kindly, flatulent Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) suddenly leaves town to care for a friend. Naturally enough, this means that Malcolm must don many pounds of flabby goo and impersonate her; neither Big Momma's meddlesome neighbors nor her babealicious granddaughter, Sherry (Nia Long), seems to notice that she now looks totally different.
Why is this improbable transubstantiation necessary, you ask? If you must know, Malcolm and his nebbishy partner John (Paul Giamatti) have Big Momma's place staked out for the arrival of a fugitive -- the aforementioned sweet 'n' hot Sherry -- and like all cops in comedies they can't possibly change their plans or call in reinforcements.
As the ersatz Big Momma, Lawrence employs a raspy old-lady voice and a set of honey-chile mannerisms that are modestly amusing, or would be if they didn't call to mind Murphy's much funnier impersonations of the entire Klump family in "The Nutty Professor." (That film's sequel, due out in July, will expand those family vignettes to feature length.) Maybe the point of the movie -- and the secret of Lawrence's appeal -- is that Malcolm isn't all that great at what he does but sort of bumbles through anyhow. He cooks in butter, lard and Crisco simultaneously, fends off the lecherous local masher ("I will not be treated like street poontang!") and quick-changes out of the drag get-up to romance Sherry in the guise of a local handyman.
Gosnell stages a couple of rousing ensemble scenes, most notably when Big Momma/Malcolm is drafted to midwife a birth (oven mitts, a plunger and yet more Crisco are involved) and later gets called upon to testify at the full-gospel church. Presided over by a deliciously pompous preacher, played by the comic known as Cedric the Entertainer, these high-octane church scenes pretty much rescued the movie for me. It's possible that Sergei Eisenstein's vision of film as an art form did not include a man dressed as a 350-pound woman doing the robot to a rousing rendition of the hymn "Oh Happy Day," but your inner fourth-grader should find it hilarious.
Of course, there are far grimmer moments in "Big Momma's House" too, even if we forget about the opening onslaught of toilet humor. Do I need to tell you what happens when Big Momma goes to karate class? (She kicks hella butt.) Or when Sherry's son Trent gets dissed on the basketball court? (Yes, Big Momma takes it to the hole.) By the time the real Big Momma returns home to interrupt the charade and an escaped convict named Lester (the dreamily charismatic Terrence Howard) shows up in pursuit of Sherry, the movie seems to be running a temperature and getting delirious.
Long isn't asked to do much here but look fetching and harbor a vague secret (which never amounts to much). But as Lawrence's partner, Giamatti, a veteran of countless stage and screen performances (including "Private Parts" and "Man on the Moon"), handles his underwritten role as Lawrence's sidekick with something like the repressed, gamboling insanity of John Cleese. As is usual with movies aimed at African-Americans, the cast is crowded with talented character actors most moviegoers never get to see. Along with Howard, Cedric and Broadway veteran Mitchell, Anthony Anderson (who endured the pummeling of Jet Li in "Romeo Must Die") is irresistible as a hapless security guard who longs to impress Malcolm and John.
As for Lawrence, you never get the feeling he breaks a sweat, even inside that enormous rubber costume. That, you could argue, is its own kind of magical performance. "What the hell?" his easygoing half-smile seems to say. "You've definitely seen worse movies, and we can all go out and hit some margaritas soon." Taken as a whole, "Big Momma's House" probably resembles the title character's pies: dreary, store-bought filling packed into a flaky crust made with plenty of Crisco.