Could there be any less appealing image than that of a fat Martin Lawrence in drag scratching his rear, as 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 even 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, even though Foxx was clearly condescending to the character. Lawrence is certainly familiar with drag, having played several female characters on his former sitcom Martin, but those bits tended to go on too long despite logging no more than five minutes of TV time. And Lawrence's work generally is hit or miss: He's best when he's at his most subdued, as in Michael Bay's debut film Bad Boys, in which he played a cop with a strong sense of humor but eschewed the full range of his irritating "yell 'whaaazupp!' while sporting an idiotic grin" schtick. Come to think of it, the mere idea of Lawrence playing a cop, as he does in Big Momma's House and so many other films, is amusing in and of itself, given his frequent public problems with both sanity and the law: It's a bit like Denise Richards playing a nuclear scientist.
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's got your basic Saturday Night Live sensibility: Fat person does funny stuff, everyone laughs. The whole thing is based upon the stereotype of elderly black matriarchs being tough and taking 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, whether playing basketball or beating up a bullying karate instructor.
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Lawrence is Malcolm, a master of disguise, partnered with the nebbishy John (Paul Giamatti, whose resemblance to Rob Schneider has never been more apparent) to catch a deadly criminal who has just broken out of jail. Knowing that the bad guy is looking to find his girlfriend, Sherry (Nia Long, who needs a better agent after this and Held Up), Malcolm, and John stake out the house of Sherry's grandmother Hattie Mae, a.k.a. Big Momma, in the hope that Sherry will try to contact her. Sherry does, but happens to do 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, and isn't it convenient that he happens to be a master of disguise?
Standard-issue gags ensue, from the obligatory fat person on the toilet to the obligatory lecherous old man. 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 also from Lawrence, who actually does his best to humanize the role of Big Momma rather than play it as a leering caricature (although some caricature is inevitably 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 also gets some nice bonding scenes out of costume with Sherry and her son. That these scenes are played for gentle laughs rather than tears is a major plus.
Big Momma's House
Playing at selected theaters.
The direction by Raja Gosnell (Home Alone 3) is for the most part generic, although he shows real flair in the handful of suspenseful scenes involving the evil ex-boyfriend. Perhaps he might try a horror movie next time out? Or is it 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 him salivating over Sherry in her underwear. And John never so much as calls the family that 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 II is coming out in a couple of months, and, if the first one is any measure, will undoubtedly feature wittier "funny black guy as fat old woman" jokes (the coming attractions certainly do). Just be aware that if a friend wants to drag you along to Big Momma's House, it won't be quite the torture test you might have envisioned.