Truth in the Raw.
On the other hand, Mr. Lawrence, maybe you can't handle the truth.
Facts of the Case
Martin Lawrence enjoyed his share of successes in the final decade of the 20th century: a string of popular movies (House Party, Bad Boys, Blue Streak, Big Momma's House); a TV sitcom that ran for five seasons (Martin); a stint as host of the seminal stand-up comedy showcase Def Comedy Jam on HBO. He also experienced some serious problems: arrests for gun possession; a fight in a Hollywood nightclub; a much-publicized incident in which an under-the-influence Lawrence confronted motorists on a crowded Los Angeles street; a collapse from heat exhaustion that left the comedian/actor in a coma for three days.
Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat represents the volatile funnyman's return to the concert stage (his previous concert film, You So Crazy, was released back in 1994) to address the often negative publicity surrounding his personal life over the past several years. Opening with a scathing rebuke of his critics (the film's title is Lawrence's jab at members of the media he perceives as over-eager to "run tell that" about his various indiscretions), Lawrence, like Richard Pryor before him, uses his stand-up act as a forum to tell his side of the story.
Comedy is both the easiest and most difficult entertainment genre to critique. Easy because it's cut-and-dried: if you laugh, it's good; if you don't laugh, it stinks. Difficult because, as a familiar episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated, the reasons why something is—or isn't—funny are so personal and individual as to be nigh onto impossible to explain.
But we'll give it a whack.
The easy part first: Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat isn't funny. I laughed aloud a total of three times during its 101 minutes, which is roughly equivalent to the number of times I'd laugh during an equal period spent watching Congressional filibusters on C-Span. (Actually, I might laugh even more at our nation's leaders, just to keep from weeping. But I digress.) Now the tough part, which actually isn't all that tough in this instance: Martin Lawrence is a gifted physical comic, but he needs to hire some new writers. Preferably ones who aren't still laboring under the tired, long-discredited illusion that profane language is inherently humorous.
Blue comedy is certainly nothing new. You'd be hard-pressed even today to find many comics who could rival Redd Foxx, who pioneered the field with his "party records" in the 1950s and 1960s, for raw material. But Foxx—like his successors Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and yes, Eddie Murphy—wasn't funny because he used vulgarisms. He was funny with language, which is something else altogether. At their essence, Foxx, Pryor, and the others were brilliant observational humorists who wielded "dirty words" like scalpels, carving away their audiences' proprieties and preconceptions to get at the human truth beneath. Lawrence, on the other hand, slings profanity like a lead-filled sap against the skull of sensibility, mostly because he hasn't anything particularly novel to say.
There's not a single subject area covered by Lawrence in Runteldat you haven't heard other comedians address using infinitely better material: race relations, marital relations, parent-child relations, and sexual relations. All of these topics continue to be rife with fodder for good laughs, because they are universal commonalities: we all have parents and/or children, significant others, and sex (okay, most of us…), and we all interact with people of different ethnicities and colors. But Lawrence hasn't much to contribute to our understanding of, or reflection upon, these issues. He simply retraces the same worn-out roads hundreds of predecessors have traveled, incorrectly thinking that if he can cram more four-, five- and twelve-letter epithets into these crusty old jokes, no one will notice. Yo, Martin: we notice. And we're still not laughing.
Runteldat's ostensible raison d'être, Lawrence's open confessional about his forays into public embarrassment, falls so completely short of its intended mark one wonders why he bothered. When Richard Pryor bared his soul in his post-conflagration concert films, he reserved his most penetrating indictments for his own self-destructive behavior. Lawrence, by contrast, devotes his efforts to persuading his audience to embrace, accept, even excuse his foibles: "No one is immune to the trials and tribulations of life," he tells us over and over. Perhaps not, Martin, but most of us don't wind up packing heat at busy intersections and hurling obscenities at people in a drug-induced rage. Like the equally unrepentant Pete Rose, Lawrence fails to grasp this verity: forgiveness begins with contrition. Bitterness and self-congratulatory justification rarely win friends or positively influence people.
One of the few genuinely humorous bits of business, oddly enough, is a sequence edited out of the film but included as an extra on the DVD: a five-minute riff about boxing, in which Lawrence delivers a dead-on impersonation of ex-champ Mike Tyson. Why isn't there more of this in the movie, instead of all the bile?
Speaking of the DVD—you know we would eventually—Paramount has done a dandier job with it than the content merits. For a film shot under the admittedly less-than-ideal circumstances of a concert venue, Runteldat is bold, bright, and looks great, courtesy of a clean anamorphic transfer. Lawrence's image throughout the film is consistently sharp and nicely contrasted, even against a predominantly black background in close-ups. No digital errors or print flaws appear. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack feels appropriately full, with the surrounds used effectively to reinforce the crowd ambience. I never had any difficulty in making out Lawrence's monologue, even at low volume.
One might suppose—and I did—that a commentary track on a spoken comedy album might be superfluous. However, Runteldat director David Raynr and producers Michael Hubbard and Robert Lawrence contribute an informative, lively chat for the DVD audience. Much of the discussion revolves around the logistical and technical challenges of filming in a live concert setting. There's also a strong thread of "Martin's so hilarious" running through the conversation, but overall the track is interesting and not inordinately effusive.
The production featurette Backstage Pass: The Making of Runteldat provides a well-packaged, 14-minute journey through the development of the film. Its primary points of interest are the snippets from Lawrence's appearances in comedy clubs around the country as he honed the material he would use in the featured performance. These bits are interlaced with the usual interview cuts from Lawrence, director David Raynr, and the production team. An anamorphic trailer completes the disc.
A harbinger of a trend I hate: the disc opens with a trailer (for the Tommy Lee Jones/Benicio Del Toro action pic The Hunted). Fortunately, the formatting allows the viewer to punch the "Next" button and get to the main menu, but it's a shame we have to. The price of doing business, I'm told.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just a thought about Lawrence's anti-critic/anti-media rant. It's a common fallacy among artists, athletes, and other skilled folks that only those capable of doing a given thing well are capable of evaluating the performance of others. This, quite frankly, is hogwash. Quality, and the perception thereof, transcends one's own ability. Were it not so, an artist would be limited to displaying his work before no one except his peers—only they would be capable of appreciating it. If the only people entitled to critique comedy are comedians, why perform comedy for the masses? Is not their laughter—or lack thereof—the purest form of criticism?
If you don't want negative media attention, Mr. Lawrence, keep your nose clean. As one of your comic contemporaries, Adam Carrolla, once put it, "If you don't want people to look at you like you're a freak, don't do freaky things to yourself."
A waste of Martin Lawrence's considerable comedic chops, as he wallows in a mire of scabrous language and ego-indulgent whining. In those all-too-infrequent moments where flashes of his unique talent are allowed to shine unfettered by self-pity, one is reminded how funny Lawrence can be when someone gives him a decent script. Left to his own writing devices, as he is here, Lawrence hoists himself on his own petard. And it isn't pretty.
Guilty of pointless, humorless and tiresome spewing, coupled with an utter lack of observational insight or introspection. Martin Lawrence is sentenced to repeated exposure to Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor recordings until he can hear beyond the profanities to the underlying truth. I know their work, Mr. Lawrence, and you're not in their league. Run tell DAT, why don't you.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director David Raynr, Producer Michael Hubbard, and Executive Producer Robert Lawrence
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