Give a film a title like "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" and you may find yourself on the losing end of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As far as this underperforming comedy goes, the "worst"-case scenario would be to prolong the only intermittently amusing game of one-upmanship it depicts between a suave, essentially decent thief (Martin Lawrence) and a greedy media baron (Danny DeVito). Safe to say, it's not among the cinema's most compelling rivalries.
The first half of this slow-starting film introduces us to accomplished criminal Kevin Caffery (Lawrence) and his relatively competent crew, while treating us to such sights as Boston Common, the St. Charles River and the campus of Cambridge. Caffery is seen hanging out at an art auction in an effort to glean the relative value of certain paintings, which he'll later retrieve from their new owners.
Soon enough, we meet Caffery's enthusiastic partner in crime, Berger (the likable John Leguizamo); his wisecracking Uncle Jack (the very funny Bernie Mac); and Amber Belhaven (Carmen Ejogo of TV's "Sally Hemings"), the pretty anthropologist and former dot-com employee who rapidly becomes Caffery's main squeeze.
An unwitting (and mostly unwilling) odd couple is formed when the pompous, libidinous Max Fairbanks (DeVito) is nearly robbed by Caffery while cavorting with a magazine centerfold (Sascha Knopf) at his coastal mansion. Instead, Caffrey loses a ring given to him by his beloved. The rich Fairbanks (referred to as "the dark prince of plunder" in a local newspaper), claims the jewelry -- which happens to bear the insignia of his company -- as the spoils of war. Caffery (who calls himself "the connoisseur of all things portable") sets his sights on a protracted battle to retrieve his stolen possession.
Lawrence is given the chance to demonstrate the sort of mocking, faux-shucking-and-jiving shtick that used to come so easily to Eddie Murphy. Before he became Mr. Nice Guy, Murphy was a genius at that approach, and Chris Rock has proven a capable inheritor of the tradition. But Lawrence is merely a contender. And DeVito is as abrasive and annoying as ever.
Working from Matthew Chapman's screenplay (itself an based on a book by best-selling novelist and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake), director Sam Weisman ("The Out-of-Towners") wisely balances the central feud with shenanigans involving an impressive group of secondary players, including "Saturday Night Live's" Ana Gasteyer as Berger's wife, Ann Marie. Fairbanks' entourage includes his daffy, Tarot card-reading assistant, Gloria (Glenne Headly); his suspicious wife, Lutetia (Nora Dunn); his beleaguered attorney, Walter (Richard Schiff); and a macho security chief named Earl (Larry Miller). William Fichtner grabs a few cheap laughs as an effeminate police detective, a dandy who wields a walking cane while hot on the trail of a conspiracy theory.
The best that could happen transpires during the last 20 minutes or so of the movie, when many of these characters collide to comedic effect. The MVP is Stephanie Clayman as a sign-language interpreter who's willing to go to great lengths to translate even the coarsest expressions for her audience. Hers is the funniest sequence in a film that's surprisingly routine given its gathered talent.