Losing the drag race

Movie: Big Momma's House

Our Rating: 2.50

Comic actor Martin Lawrence always seems to appear in the shadow of Eddie Murphy. And despite having starred in two TV series and more than a dozen movies, he also shows signs of being stuck in a genre grind.

It didn't always look that way. Lawrence was ready for mainstream stardom after "Bad Boys," a Michael Bay-directed action flick that kick-started the careers of his co-stars, Will Smith and Tia Leone. Instead, he drifted into "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" and Blue Streak -- one tolerable and the other not much better.

And now we have "Big Momma's House." Its main drawback isn't that Big Momma is an unfunny character, or that Lawrence in outrageous drag equals a one-joke movie. What makes Lawrence's position difficult, career-wise, is that his latest film has been hustled into theaters early so it won't get swamped by the upcoming "The Klumps," a return visit by a group of characters who decorated Murphy's wildly successful remake of "The Nutty Professor."

Even when it comes to retreads, Murphy beats Lawrence. Everything about "Big Momma's House" looks like a twice-told joke. Lawrence plays Malcolm Turner, an FBI agent staking out a Georgia grandmother's home as he searches for an escaped bank robber. Seizing upon the senior citizen's sudden absence, he dons a feminine disguise and impersonates the battle axe to glean clues from her beautiful but suspect granddaughter, Sherry (Nia Long).

We spend the next hour or so watching Lawrence leap through windows and jump fences in an effort to avoid discovery. If you think that love, cross-generational acceptance and a successful collar aren't in the pipeline, you're way out of sync with popular moviemaking.

Goofy character actor Paul Giamatti is John, Lawrence's sidekick and straight man, who also serves as the film's token white face; there's no question that the comedy here is aimed directly at African-American viewers. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it will limit yet another Lawrence vehicle's appeal to smaller audiences than the ones Murphy's mainstream vehicles enjoy.

Murphy may have more talent than Lawrence (a thoroughly debatable point), but there's no question that the former's early-'90s overindulgences opened a window of opportunity for the latter. But the best Lawrence could muster was a co-starring effort with Murphy (last year's Life) that soldiered its way to a profit but failed to make a serious impact in Hollywood.

As a result, his follow-up is an utterly predictable, dismissable, lightweight entertainment that gives Lawrence limited exposure and little else. Whether he's playing the real or the fake Big Momma, the actor's makeup never looks quite right. And nothing else looks particularly interesting around this tired story.

Time will tell if Lawrence can ever move up from second-banana status. But to do it, he'll need to operate from a classier address than "Big Momma's House."

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