He's deep undercover.
Big Momma's House is Martin Lawrence's attempt to go where Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire and Eddie Murphy (The Nutty Professor) have gone before, with results that at best could be called uneven. Ultimately it comes down to the believability of the main premise, which fails to be convincing in the context of the film. Fox has done an excellent job bringing this less than effective comedy to DVD, with a fine picture and sound and excellent package of special features.
Facts of the Case
Malcolm Turner (Martin Lawrence—Bad Boys) is a detective with a penchant for using elaborate disguises in his work. His latest case involves tracking the girlfriend of an escaped bank robber who may know the location of 2 million stolen dollars. He and his partner John (Paul Giamatti) go down south to stake out the home of the grandmother Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) in hopes of finding the girlfriend Sherry (Nia Long). When Big Momma gets called away and Sherry is on the way to visit, Malcolm must now put his skills with makeup to impersonate her. Not only does Sherry believe he is the real Big Momma, but so do friends, neighbors, and even a suitor. Hijinks ensue as Big Momma gets to do things no heavily obese senior citizen is capable of, and of course you know that Malcolm is going to fall for the girl. The formulaic answers to each dilemma follow.
There are funny moments spaced throughout the film. The funniest scenes are when Big Momma does things she shouldn't be able to do, like whip the neighborhood bullies in a basketball game or throw the local martial arts instructor around the room. Conversely one of the funniest scenes is when Malcolm has to cover for something Big Momma could do and he couldn't, when a woman in labor shows up expecting the local midwife Big Momma to deliver the baby. A plunger and an oven mitt are part of the tools he chooses to bring the baby into the world, and was worth a good laugh.
Other aspects of the film worked as well at times. Besides a "man in drag" comedy the film attempts to be an action vehicle, a romantic comedy, and a tender relationship film. The opening scene that provides the exposition about Malcolm's expertise with disguise and his job as an FBI agent worked very well. This was one scene where the action and comedy worked together, and gave me hope for a fine story to follow.
Despite some misgivings I'll elaborate on below, I don't want to minimize Martin Lawrence's talents. He is a fine comedic actor just breaking out to be a real leading man in his own right. In the past his best films have been as the partner of another famous actor, such as Will Smith in Bad Boys or Eddie Murphy in Life. However, last year's Blue Streak was a breakout film for him in my opinion, and this was his follow-up effort. And there is no doubt about his commitment: Last year he passed out from heat exhaustion and spent several days in a coma as he worked out to better fit into the heavy body makeup for this film. In my opinion, in Big Momma's House he took a really bad film and made it work as well as can be expected.
We've been reporting for awhile now that Fox has really risen to the challenge of producing top notch DVDs. This disc is no exception. Fox appears to be one of the few studios still paying money for the THX license, but at least in this case the quality matches up to the level that certification implies. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very good, with the rather garish color palette given a great look and clarity. There are no artifacts or edge enhancement issues to worry about, and the picture looks very sharp and detailed. The shadow detail was only decent but not worthy of complaint, and that was the biggest flaw I could detect.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fairly typical for comedy fare, which means there isn't much in the way of activity in the mix. This is mainly a front-heavy soundtrack with ambient sound and musical score going to the rear. Dialogue was clear without hiss or distortion, and the level of clarity was high, which is about all you can expect in such a mix.
The bonus features are where the disc really shines. There is a virtual cornucopia of extras here. The first is "Building Big Momma's House," a 20-minute "making of" feature that does a pretty fair job of what efforts went into getting the film made, especially the heavy makeup effects. The full make-up test is included as a separate extra that is partially covered by the first feature. Perhaps my favorite extra feature was the outtake reel, which lasts about 8 minutes. It was funnier than the film in my opinion. Two deleted scenes follow, including a truly awful alternative opening sequence. As I said above, the opening that was ultimately chosen was one of the best parts of the film. These two scenes are offered with or without commentary from director Raja Gosnell (Never Been Kissed). Gosnell also appears with producer David Friendly on a commentary track. I have no real complaints with the track except for the fact they obviously thought they were watching a better film than I did. Next we have two music videos: "Bounce With Me" by Lil' Bow-Wow and "I've Got To Have It" by Jermaine Dupri featuring Nas and Monica, followed by the trailer, TV spots, and a preview trailer for Me, Myself, and Irene.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one overriding factor that makes or breaks the film, despite any other flaws I can talk about. That is whether the main premise of Martin Lawrence in makeup as Big Momma works. The short answer is it doesn't. But I have a couple specific comments on this factor. In Mrs. Doubtfire we were looking at a fictional character Robin Williams invented. In Big Momma's House the disguise is supposed to do far more than that; it is meant to be convincing to other characters who actually know the real Big Momma well. Nobody could look at Martin Lawrence in that get up and not notice that something is amiss compared to the real woman they have known for years. Besides that, it simply didn't look convincing to be a real person at times. The opening scene has Lawrence made up as an elderly Asian man which looks far more convincing. Unfortunately he spends most of the film in the Big Momma mode, which didn't work nearly as well.
For the moment, lets assume the makeup worked just fine. It still isn't a very funny film. Except for those few scenes I mentioned, there are many that fall flat on it's padded face. Early on is a bathroom scene that I found gross and the exact opposite of funny. Bathroom humor is difficult to make work when you have to balance the comedic value against the gross-out factor. There are too many scenes that either don't work or don't get the level of laugh the better ones did. The story is formulaic and plays out like a bad sit-com.
Beyond that, the story is a hopeless muddle by trying to combine a romance between Malcolm and Sherry, the stakeout for the bank robber, the exposition of the guilt or innocence of Sherry as an accomplice to her ex-boyfriend, and exploration of the relationship between Sherry and her son, and both with Big Momma. There is way too much trying to get done in this 98 minute film. The scenes with Malcolm relating as himself to the girl and her son are all too brief to make up for that whole subplot in particular. My biggest complaint is there is altogether too much Big Momma, which is unconvincing and also obscures the face and many of the abilities Martin Lawrence brings to the film.
I've given compliments to Martin Lawrence despite disliking the film. Another problem is I felt he was out there on his own. Paul Giamatti and Nia Long were wooden and unimpressive in their roles. I especially felt that way about Long. She was simply bland next to Martin Lawrence in either of his guises.
It's time to make the hurting stop. I've ripped on this film long enough. There really are some moments I liked within the film, but simply not enough to make up for the formulaic story, unconvincing main element, and muddled multi-genre script. For those who have seen the film and disagree with me, I heartily recommend the disc. For the rest, I could offer cautionary advice for a rental, but I'd just pass if I were you.
Martin Lawrence is acquitted mainly because of his past work, but the film is sentenced to obscurity. The DVD gets an easy acquittal for its fine picture and sound, and excellent collection of special features.
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