Danny DeVito, Martin Lawrence

With a potentially boomeranging title like "What's The Worst That Could Happen?'' a comic movie had better be playing its skillful best. In fact, the title is one of the few significant elements that remains intact in writer Matthew Chapman's dreary adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's clever 1996 novel.

With a potentially boomeranging title like “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?” a comic movie had better be playing its skillful best. In fact, the title is one of the few significant elements that remains intact in writer Matthew Chapman’s dreary adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s clever 1996 novel, his ninth in the series tracking the escapades of amusingly snakebit thief John Dortmunder. The mirthless, enervated result of this page-to-screen transfer is a pinpoint study in what not to do with an adaptation, as well as in why altering a well-known fictional character to suit a poorly cast star is almost always a very bad idea. The star in this case is Martin Lawrence, who is not only thoroughly upstaged by nemesis Danny DeVito but is completely boxed out of his comfort zone for broad physical comedy. Westlake and Dortmunder fans will be enraged, and pic will test Lawrence’s ability to draw his base in the same numbers as his last hit nearly a year ago, “Big Momma’s House.” With nary an obese wiggling bottom in sight, B.O. prospects appear shaky.

What caps the project’s numerous frustrations is how Westlake’s tome, about Dortmunder planning obsessive, elaborate revenge against a tycoon who shamed him by stealing his “lucky” ring during a heist, already reads like a movie and serves things up on a platter for an easy adaptation. From the opening minutes, though, when a suave Lawrence peruses paintings at a fine auction house and announces himself as “Kevin Caffery” to a lovely black Englishwoman named Amber Belhaven (Carmen Ejogo), it’s not only clear that we’re a million miles from Dortmunder territory, but that Chapman and director Sam Weisman somehow feel sure they can improve on Westlake’s mastery of the comic crime genre.

When Kevin charms Amber by stealing back the very painting she had just auctioned off, we get hints of a budding romantic comedy. Still, Kevin gets into the sack with Amber awfully fast, just as she’s too quick to give him her father’s cherished ring and force him into compacts such as never lying to her — and this to a self-confessed thief.

In Boston, things are going badly for tycoon Max Fairbanks (DeVito), a squat terrier of a man dubbed “the dark prince of plunder,” who is contending with a Chapter 11 filing, his bossy Beacon Hill-bred wife Lutetia (Nora Dunn) and his dry, businesslike lawyer Walter (Richard Schiff). But once Kevin’s partner in crime Berger (John Leguizamo) hatches a plot to burglarize Fairbanks’ Marblehead mansion, things get personal. Thankfully preserved intact are the novel’s crucial moments when Fairbanks, entertaining a centerfold model at the manse, catches Kevin in the act, alerts the cops and tricks the thief into giving him Amber’s ring.

Thus, a war of egos is born: The wounded Kevin is determined to not let anyone “rob the robber,” while the now-peppy Fairbanks is sure he can outlast his legal and fiduciary opponents since he reads the ring’s symbolism (its logo is identical to his corporation’s) as a sure sign of luck. Pity the fellow who tries to rip it off his finger.

Pic soon sputters into a miasma of its own making, as various comic set pieces jump and crash-land, with DeVito and Lawrence showing sweat as they try to eke out the laughs. While Westlake’s original plotting deliberately separates antagonists until the last possible moment, pic’s scenario has them constantly crossing paths to no net effect except to preen testosterone onscreen.

An auction finale is clumsy film comedy on every level, bringing all the characters together for one last, dull fling. Ridiculous coda plays like a measly bone thrown to fans of Lawrence, who finally gets to sport a goofy Afro wig.

Nothing in Lawrence’s uninspired perf justifies the Dortmunder-to-Kevin transformation, with the many dead moments giving one plenty of time to recall Robert Redford’s wry turn as the thief in “The Hot Rock,” which remains the best Dortmunder pic. Lawrence does his usual mugging, and even though material has been stretched to admit some loud farcical business, it’s nowhere near the raucous level Lawrence likes to play at. As much as Lawrence is a fish partly out of water, DeVito is in his element as Fairbanks — maybe too much so, for this feels like a less-energetic replay of DeVito’s other incorrigible egomaniacs.

The supporting cast of several brilliant comics — such as Leguizamo, Glenne Headly as Fairbanks’ I Ching-devoted aide-de-camp, Larry Miller as Fairbanks’ security man and Siobhan Fallon and Lenny Clarke as feuding marrieds who assist Kevin — is almost criminally underutilized. Dunn stands out, turning a small role into a much bigger one as she did in “Three Kings,” while Ana Gasteyer as Berger’s wife appears mostly lost in the cutting room.

Music selections and scoring are uniformly terrible, starting with a mangled hip-hop sampling of Sinatra’s “High Hopes,” but production dressed up by costumer Jeffrey Kurland and designer Howard Cummings is kind to the eye.

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Production

An MGM Pictures release of a Turman-Morrissey Co./Hyde Park Entertainment production. Produced by Lawrence Turman, David Hoberman, Ashok Amritraj, Wendy Dytman. Executive producers, John Morrissey, Martin Lawrence, David Nicksay. Co-producer, Peaches Davis. Directed by Sam Weisman. Screenplay, Matthew Chapman, based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Anastas Michos; editors, Garth Craven, Nick Moore; music, Tyler Bates; additional music, Marc Shaiman; music supervisor, Anita Camarata; production designer, Howard Cummings; art director, David Lazan; set decorator, Debra Schutt; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound (DTS/SDDS), David M. Kelson; supervising sound editor, John Leveque; special effects coordinator, Tom Ward; associate producer, Carol Kelson; assistant director, Allan Nicholls; second unit camera, Gary Hymes; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, May 23, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Kevin Caffery - Martin Lawrence Max Fairbanks - Danny DeVito Berger - John Leguizamo Gloria - Glenne Headly Amber Belhaven - Carmen Ejogo Uncle Jack - Bernie Mac Earl Radburn - Larry Miller Lutetia Fairbanks - Nora Dunn Walter Greenbaum - Richard Schiff Detective Alex Tardio - William Fichtner Ann Marie - Ana Gasteyer Tracey Kimberly - Sascha Knopf Edwina - Siobhan Fallon Shelly Nix - GQ Windham - Lenny Clarke

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