[Screen It]

(2000) (Martin Lawrence, Nia Long) (PG-13)

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Comedy: An FBI agent poses as a cantankerous Southern granny while trying to catch a brutal bank robber who once dated the granddaughter of the woman he's impersonating.
FBI agent Malcolm Turner (MARTIN LAWRENCE), a master of disguises, and his behind the scenes and more straight-laced partner, John (PAUL GIAMATTI), have been assigned to track down Lester Vasgow (TERRENCE HOWARD), a convicted bank robber and recent prison escapee.

Since Lester's former girlfriend, Sherry Pierce (NIA LONG), has suddenly hit the road with her son Trent (JASCHA WASHINGTON) upon hearing of Lester's escape, and due to the fact that she's a previous suspect and bank employee who was neither charged nor cleared of being involved in the crime, the agents stake out the home of her Southern and rather large grandmother, Hattie May Pierce, affectionately known as "Big Momma" (ELLA MITCHELL).

When Big Momma suddenly leaves town to attend to a sick friend, the men decide to bug her house. Once inside, they get their big break when Sherry calls and leaves a message on the answering machine. Hearing that she's passing through and would like to drop in for a quick visit despite not getting along that well with her grandmother over the past several years, Malcolm picks up the phone and tries impersonating Big Momma so as to make Sherry stop by.

While not perfect, his impersonation works and he and John then set out - via a lifelike mask, wig, padding and extra-large clothes - to disguise Malcolm as Big Momma, hoping that Sherry will spill the beans to him/her about everything related to Lester and the robbery. Arriving at her grandma's house and having not seen her for several years, Sherry falls for Malcolm's impersonation, as do most of the woman's friends along with Ben (CARL WRIGHT), her older gentleman suitor.

Getting to know Sherry and Trent as both Big Momma and himself, Malcolm begins to fall for her and hopes that he can discover the truth about her involvement in the crime. With Lester zeroing in on Sherry and Trent, Malcolm and John continue their ruse of the former continuing to play Big Momma, all while dealing with an over ambitious security guard, Nolan (ANTHONY ANDERSON), and the worries that their cover will eventually be blown.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although I'll admit that I've never known a person who suddenly needed to dress up like a member of the opposite sex to avoid the bad guys, get a job or accomplish a certain goal (come to think of it, I don't know of any such people in general with or without such motives), it seems that entertainment executives and producers enjoy the thought of placing such characters in their films and TV shows, especially since audiences seem to enjoy watching them.

On TV, Milton Berle and Flip Wilson dressed like women for laughs, while decades later a young Tom Hanks did so to get a place to live on "Bosom Buddies." At the movies, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis did it in "Some Like It Hot" to avoid the bad guys, Dustin Hoffman appeared in and as "Tootsie" to get a job, while Robin Williams donned the dress, wig and mask to be closer to his kids in "Mrs. Doubtfire."

The obvious jokes of such moments stem from seeing men - who would otherwise never be mistaken for women - in drag, and of such participants getting a better realization of what it's like to be a member of the opposite sex. Then, of course, there are the obligatory scenes where such characters must switch in and out of their guises and outfits, and/or risk having their ruse being discovered.

Now you can add comedian Martin Lawrence ("Blue Streak," "Life") to the list of performers who've done the drag thing with his headlining performance in "Big Momma's House." Like Williams in "Doubtfire," the comedian doesn't go for impersonating a sexy young thing, but instead dons the portly grandmother look, obviously the better of which to generate humor from the obvious physical and generational contrasts.

Of course, the difference between those other films and this one is that Lawrence's character is impersonating an already existing character, thus adding more potential complications and possibilities of being discovered and/or ousted. While the "real" Big Momma, played by Ella Mitchell ("Which Way is Up," "Drums"), is only around at the beginning and end of the film, that fact and some additional situational premises are enough for the audience to believe that everyone would be fooled by the FBI agent's impersonation of her.

As such, the obvious jokes stem from Malcolm not knowing the woman's friends and/or lovers, her behavior or even how to cook. Such a premise obviously sets the stage for several hilarious set pieces, and since we've seen this sort of story enough times to know pretty much how things will unfold and turn out, the film's success rides on those hopeful standout moments and Lawrence's performance in drag.

Written by screenwriters Darryl Quarles ("Soldier Boy," various TV episodes of various shows) and Don Rhymer (the TV shows "Coach" and "Evening Shade") and directed by former editor turned director Raja Gosnell ("Never Been Kissed," "Home Alone 3"), the film certainly has its shares of big laughs and Lawrence obviously has a good time embodying and obviously overplaying the stereotypical, large Southern black woman. With great makeup and prosthetics - courtesy of Oscar winning special makeup artist Greg Cannom ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dracula") -- that simultaneously manage to look rather realistic and obviously faked, Lawrence gets a lot of mileage out of the getup as well as the standalone scenes provided to him by the filmmakers.

Among the latter are moments where the FBI agent must serve as a midwife during a pregnancy, contend with an overly aggressive self-defense instructor, and, not surprisingly, appear in a lively Southern church service filled with singing and dancing. While such moments do feel more like isolated skits designed solely to let Lawrence do his thing - rather than as naturally occurring events in the course of the plot - many of them are rather funny and obvious crowd pleasers.

Like "Tootsie" and "Doubtfire" before it, some of the humor here also stems from the sight and thought of a man dressed in drag being attracted to a woman, and Nia Long ("Boiler Room," "The Best Man") provides the necessary visual stimulation to make such jokes work. Unlike those films, this one also includes some bathroom humor that's seemingly become the de facto standard in many of today's contemporary comedies.

While the film avoids the usual scene where the protagonist tries to get in and out of the guise to fool one or more people into thinking that both the character and the impersonated one are present, some moments of the impersonation nearly being discovered and/or the disguise physically failing in one form or another are present and humorous. In addition, the fact that two such characters simultaneously exist in this story provides for some fun misdirection and cleverly timed entrances and exits, although the film could have used more of those moments for continued and bigger laughs.

Beyond Lawrence and Long - the latter of which delivers a pleasant but not spectacular take on her character - the performances are a mixed bag. While Paul Giamatti ("Man on the Moon," "Private Parts") is funny as the more straight-laced FBI partner, Anthony Anderson ("Romeo Must Die," "Liberty Heights") is less successful as an overeager security guard, although he does have a few humorous moments.

Fairing much worse is Terrence Howard ("Best Laid Plans," "The Best Man") who can't do much with his barely developed, one-dimensional villainous character that's present only as a plot catalyst. While he has the appropriate, menacing look, the filmmakers never do much with him beyond using his actions as cutaways until his eventual arrival at the end, nor do they make the effort of showing what possibly could have attracted Long's character to his.

More sophomoric and not as much fun as "Mrs. Doubtfire," and not even coming close to the brilliance that pervaded "Tootsie," "Big Momma's House" certainly isn't a great film, but it's a fun and funny enough diversion that one probably won't really mind.

Featuring an inspired performance by Lawrence, great makeup effects and some humorous and occasionally hilarious standalone set pieces, this film might not bring anything particularly new to the drag genre and it suffers a bit from missing some truly heartfelt and/or deep moments. Even so, it still comes off as a mostly enjoyable and entertaining diversion. As such, the film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 31, 2000 / Posted June 2, 2000

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