Big Momma's House
Screenplay : Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymer
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Martin Lawrence (Malcolm), Nia Long (Sherry), Paul Giamatti (John), Jascha Washington (Trent), Terrence Howard (Lester), Anthony Anderson (Nolan), Ella Mitchell (Big Momma), Carl Wright (Ben)
Dustin Hoffman did it in "Tootsie" (1982). Robin Williams pulled it off in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993). So, why can't Martin Lawrence play a man impersonating a woman? Simply put, because he doesn't have a script to work with.
"Big Momma's House," an action-comedy in which Lawrence plays Malcolm, an FBI agent who goes undercover as a bulging, overweight Southern grandma, is a flat, lifeless affair, even when cavorting in some of the grossest bowel-movement jokes since Jim Carrey put ex-lax in Jeff Daniels' hot chocolate in "Dumb and Dumber" (1994). The movie has no audacity or verve; it's all recycled toilet jokes, cheap sentiment, and caricatures.
The one-idea script by Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymer doesn't have a shred of originality or even a good idea of how to rework old ideas. Essentially, once the story has Lawrence decked out in a padded body suit, heavy latex make-up, and a wig, spouting cliched black Southernisms (every sentence begin with "Oh, Lord ...") and calling everyone "child," it has nowhere to go. Even when director Raja Gosnell ("Never Been Kissed") lets Lawrence cut loose and improvise, the result feels forced and awkward, if not a bit boring.
Malcolm and his partner, John (played by excellent character actor Paul Giamatti in an utterly wasted role), are out to catch a murderous bank robber named Lester (Terrence Howard) who has recently escaped from jail. They suspect Lester will try to hook up with his old girlfriend, Sherry (Nia Long), a young mother who is suspected of having helped Terrence with the heist that put him in jail two years earlier, which involved robbing a bank for $2 million that has yet to be recovered.
Malcolm and John track Sherry's movements until she goes to visit her estranged grandmother, Hattie Mae (better know as Big Momma). When Big Momma conveniently goes out of town for a week, Malcolm, already a master of disguise, gets suited up. He manages to fool not only Sherry and her young son, Trent (Jascha Washington), but also all Big Momma's friends and neighbors in town, right down to the local horny old geezer who is trying witlessly to woo his way into her bedroom.
But, once this set-up is in gear, there is little to do but waste time until the big confrontation when Lester finally gets to town and Malcolm must own up to his dual identity (it is a foregone conclusion that he will fall in love with the beautiful Sherry). To fill the middle of the movie, we get a series of comic set-pieces that basically involve watching Malcolm as Big Momma do all kinds of things that a woman of her size and age would never be able to do, including beating up the local karate instructor and slamming basketballs in the public park.
Of course, the reverse scenarios are also worked over, in which Malcolm finds himself hard-pressed to fill Big Momma's ample shoes (this involves, obviously, a lot of cooking). At one point, he finds out Big Momma is the local midwife, and the hysterical--and I mean that literally, not just as in "really funny"--birth scene that follows is perhaps the closest thing the movie comes to true inspiration.
Of course, "Big Momma's House" does have a few more genuine laughs scattered throughout, and Lawrence should be given credit for being quite plausible in his undercover role. When the time comes for he and the real Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) to come face to face, it is quite striking how much they actually look and sound alike. But, still, one can't help but feel that the movie has no daring or comic instincts, making it feel much longer than it actually is. Like Big Momma herself, too much of it is just flab.
©2000 James Kendrick