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Affirmative reaction: Griffin in Undercover Brother.

Who Is the Man?
By Shawn Stone

Undercover Brother
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

With his giant Afro, stylish orange and brown suits, and bright white Cadillac, superhero Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is on the scene, saving black people from the Man. It’s not the 1970s, however, it’s today. Armed only with his Kung Fu prowess and a pair of lethal hair picks, Undercover Brother beats the Man every time.

The great conceit of the film Undercover Brother is that there really is a man called “The Man.” He’s an old, rich, shadowy, cigar-puffing, white geezer whose nefarious international organization fights every day to limit black Americans. The Man is backed with limitless wealth, and the only force keeping him in check is the Brotherhood. This radical, underground black organization fights the Man to a grim stalemate every day.

This Austin Powers-style spoof nods to the gimmickry and spy parody of those films, but its main subject for humor is race. The Brotherhood is populated with an entertaining gallery of 1970s black characters copped from both mainstream TV and blaxploitation films. The Chief (Chi McBride), with his picture of Danny Glover on the wall, is every weary black cop you’ve ever seen. Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chappelle) lives up to his name, riffing on the evil, racist origin of every Anglo-Saxon word and American apple-pie-white stereotype. Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) is Foxy Brown with a Ph.D., looking super fine while outsmarting the Man. The organization even has a white intern: “affirmative action,” the Chief sighs. (Where the organization gets its money is never explained; Oprah, perhaps?)

The plot is about the Man’s scheme to subjugate blacks once and for all with mind-control drugs. (Satire, anyone?) This prompts U.B. to join forces with the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, the Man has considerably less interesting characters working for him. In fact, if there’s anything seriously wrong with the film, it’s the presence of the tiresome Chris Kattan as Mr. Feather, chief agent for the Man.

Spike Lee’s cousin, Malcolm D. Lee, directed Undercover Brother. Given the obvious comparisons with Austin Powers, Lee seems to have learned not to copy the fitful, TV-sketch-comedy pacing of Mike Myers’ series: Undercover Brother has the energy of an action film. (An energy ironically lacking, by the way, from many of the original films being spoofed.) The jokes are fast-paced and dictated by the action, not the other way around, and are also mostly good enough to stand the strain. Alas, Lee could have borrowed some of his cousin’s great imagination; slick and satisfying as much of the film is, it lacks the anarchic kick of Spike Lee’s similar 1970s parodies in the undeservedly overlooked Girl 6.

John Ridley, who originally created the character for an internet series and cowrote the screenplay, uses Undercover Brother to lampoon white culture, black culture, and one very strange place where the two intersect: Hollywood. Ridley has worked both sides of that street, having written for both a black TV show for white people (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and a black TV show for black people (Martin). (Yes, Virginia, such divisions do exist.) Anton, U.B.’s buppie alter ego, is straight outta Fresh Prince’s Beverly Hills, while Conspiracy Brother could have been one of Martin Lawrence’s neighbors. While the movie makes the obligatory paeans to interracial brotherhood, and tellingly casts Neil Patrick Harris, aka Doogie Howser, as the only white in the black organization, it still features a plot line about white people trying to keep the black man (and woman) down. Which, I guess, makes Undercover Brother, just subversive enough to be a black movie for black people, and for white people who get it.

The Belle Jar

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Directed by Callie Khouri

My mother’s a Southerner, so I know a thing or two about whack-job faded belles, but that didn’t help me like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood any better. Adapted from the immensely popular Rebecca Wells novels by Mark Andrus and director Callie Khouri, the movie follows in the steps of Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes in that it depicts insufferable women who cling to the notion that their bad manners, neuroses and bitchiness signify character and nobility of spirit.

Where is Rhett Butler when we need him? Surely, he would have drop-kicked the Ya-Yas into reality, or at least humility. Heaven knows, the Ya-Ya Sisterhood could use that. We’ve got Vivi (Ellen Burstyn), an aging beauty who hasn’t seen her playwright daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock) in seven years, but takes Sidda’s words to a Time magazine interviewer as fresh reason to continue the emotional standoff. We find out in flashbacks that Vivi was the apple of her father’s eye, threatened her mother because of her “spirit,” dreamed of being a journalist, and lost the love of her life to WWII. She went on to marry milquetoasty Shep (James Garner), who seems content to sleep in a separate bedroom and breathe the same rarefied air as his adored wife. Vivi’s fellow Ya-Yas, Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), Necie (Shirley Knight) and Caro (Maggie Smith), attempt to reconcile her to her daughter, which involves revealing to Sidda the truth about her mother’s past. Of course, rather than just spit it out, they subject the poor transplanted New Yorker to far too many flashback memories and a lot of pseudo-folksy life advice.

I wish I could say that the performances, at least, merit attention, but without exception, all are flimsy types about which it’s really hard to care. This is particularly true of Vivi’s three friends, who don’t appear to have homes, families or lives of their own, either in the present or in the flashback scenes. As the young married Vivi, Ashley Judd is somewhat intriguing, hinting at the suppressed aspirations and willpower (neither of which fully explain the character’s rage) that the screenplay tells us she has, but which we don’t really get a solid sense of. Even with a mental breakdown, this Vivi doesn’t seem to have any connection to the older, more dramatic yet deep-down ol’ softy Vivi played by Burstyn. And throughout, there’s that annoying sense that men exist merely to pay the bills and be blamed for addictions and faded hopes. I’m all for sisterhood, but not when it tries to play both ends of the street, as it does in this movie; Vivi and company are weak enough to have been duped by the vanity and folly of men, and yet they’re worthy of worship? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

—Laura Leon

Feeding Frenzy

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Directed by Joel Zwick

Poor Toula (Nia Vardalos). She’s an ugly thirtysomething who is expected by her Greek parents, Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan), to marry a nice Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everybody till the day she dies. Kind of hard to do when you live in 21st century America, and even harder if your dreams lie in the heart of waspy English teacher Ian Miller (John Corbett). And did I mention that he’s a vegetarian?

Directed by Joel Zwick and based on Vardalos’ off-Broadway play, My Big Fat Greek Wedding takes the tragedy out of its West Side Story premise and replaces it with a seemingly nonstop barrage of Greek jokes, some of which are funny. Judging by the jokes and the stereotypes, it would appear that the Greeks don’t have an anti-defamation league as powerful as that of their Israeli or Middle Eastern counterparts. However, just as most stereotypes have, at their origin, some kernel of truth, and in fact can somehow transcend their own ethnicity (I mean, are the Greeks the only group for whom food is so primarily important?), some of the movie’s humor hits home for its non-Hellenic audience. For instance, when Toula explains to her incredulous aunt that Ian doesn’t eat meat, the aunt finally, with relief, pronounces that she will cook lamb instead.

The movie’s frenetic pace, its bloated sense of its own riotous humor, and the over-the-top performances by Constantine and Kazan almost derail the simple and believable romance of its leads, Vardalos and Corbett. While this somehow emerges relatively unscathed, it is frustrating that the character of Ian is, once engaged to Toula, nothing more than a punch line. We watch him, over and again, fracturing the Greek language (often at the instigation of Toula’s impish brother), and goodheartedly immersing himself in Greek culture—he even allows himself to be baptized in a child’s inflatable pool in order to marry in the Greek Orthodox Church. What sort of man would give up his entire identity and heritage, especially to take on one that is worlds apart from that which he had known? Is Ian a saint or a schlep? The moviemakers don’t care to let us know, preferring instead to transform a quasi-love story into a mere platform for laughs and a blueprint for sitcoms.

—L.L.

Failure of Intelligence

Bad Company
Directed by Joel Schumacher

Bad Company—about a port- able thermonuclear bomb up for grabs on the black market—was held from release after Sept. 11, but it might as well have been shelved permanently. The scene of a Afghan terrorist jumping off a building and being killed on the pavement below may provoke queasily mixed feelings, but it’s the only scene that will. The remainder of Joel Schumacher’s hackneyed action comedy will induce only torpor: Even the pairing of such polar opposites as provocative comic Chris Rock and Sir Anthony Hopkins can’t bust a new move into the pro forma buddy-cops plot.

Rock is Jake Hayes, a Jersey City street hustler separated at birth from his twin brother, a Rhodes scholar and top CIA operative. After his brother is executed during a sting operation, Jake is forcibly recruited to take his place and carry on his mission, which involves undercover negotiations for the briefcase bomb. Hopkins is CIA agent Oakes, the mission leader in charge of supervising Jake’s makeover into a body double for his suave and sophisticated twin, who was impersonating a Prague antiques dealer double-crossing the illegal arms dealer (an atrocious Peter Stormare). The nonsense buildup is treated seriously, and prolonged by a nine-day crash course during which Jake learns to speak Czech, guzzles fine wine, and trades up his baggy jeans for Armani. Jake is then sent posthaste to atmospheric Prague, where his three identities meet with a triple-cross as black-market racketeers, al Qaeda-like terrorists and the CIA team all maneuver for possession of the bomb. You’d think simply handing over the cash would’ve done it.

In his first leading-man role, Rock makes the most out of Jake’s dis-the-establishment one-liners and extremely reluctant heroics, but he has little to play against: Hopkins’ trademark gravitas as the zealously dedicated Oakes might as well have been digitally spliced in. The action sequences, especially an interminable car chase through a cornfield, are sloppily overboard by Schumacher (Batman Forever) standards. And the obligatory countdown to detonation, a not-so-nail-biting sequence, is interrupted by the script’s most misplaced humor. In the end (echoes of The Sum of All Fears), the CIA saves the day, and Jake pays homage to the agency that inducted him at gunpoint and almost got him killed. Maybe the film’s title is its best joke.

—Ann Morrow


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