With Tommy Lee Jones aptly cast in the grumpy teddy bear role that used to be Walter Matthau’s stock in trade, “Man of the House” demonstrates that even formulaic fare can earn a few guffaws if it has potent elements in the mix. High-concept comedy about a leathery Texas Ranger forced to serve as a live-in bodyguard for five flighty college cheerleaders received an under-the-radar launch usually reserved for nose-burning stinkers. (Pic opened Feb. 25 without press previews.) But sitcom-style trifle proves more than passably amusing and might post cheerier-than-expected B.O. numbers before scoring as homevid product.
Working from a prefab script credited to Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John J. McLaughlin, helmer Stephen Herek (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) dashes through the exposition with a clever split-screen sequence that intros Ranger Roland Sharp (Jones) as a taciturn tough customer. Unfortunately, after Sharp nabs a key informant (blink and you’ll miss Curtis Armstrong), a sniper intervenes causing enough confusion for the informant to escape.
But the informant doesn’t get far: He winds up on the wrong end of a gun in a downtown Austin alley — fortuitously, in full view of five U. of Texas cheerleaders.
With a killer on the loose, it’s up to Sharp and two younger eager-beaver associates (Shea Whigham and Terry Parks in thankless, underwritten roles) to protect the comely witnesses: Anne (Christina Milian), Teresa (Paula Garces), Evie (Monica Keena), Heather (Vanessa Ferlito) and Barb (Kelli Garner).
While his fellow rangers maintain surveillance from across the street, Sharp — posing, somewhat improbably, as an “assistant cheerleading coach” — moves into the girls’ sorority house. He becomes their sternly vigilant and not-entirely-welcome protector, seriously crimping their social lives and, horror of horrors, forcing them to wear less revealing attire.
With equal measures of steely-eyed authority and poker-faced sarcasm, Jones breezes through “Man of the House” at a gait somewhere between a confident stride and an intimidating swagger. He’s often laugh-out-loud hilarious, even when — no, make that especially when — Sharp insists, in rat-tat-tat bursts of warning, that he doesn’t have a sense of humor: “I do not joke. Or jest. Or jape. Or quip.”
The character is a walking and talking cliche, right down to his gradual warming toward the girls (in strictly paternal fashion, of course) and his self-consciously awkward wooing of a college professor (the eminently woo-worthy Anne Archer). To his credit, though, Jones avoids predictable reactions and responses, whether he’s wading through thickets of lacy underclothing in a cramped bathroom or dutifully shopping for feminine hygiene products at a supermarket.
Jones’ five young co-stars are suitably attractive and personable, even when they overplay the ditziness of their stereotypical characters. Vanessa Ferlito is the standout, mainly because she’s the only one who gets enough to do to make a strong impression as a distinctive personality.
Other supporting roles are capably filled by R. Lee Ermey as Sharp’s grizzled superior, Shannon Marie Woodward as Sharp’s loving but semi-estranged teen daughter, and scene-stealing Cedric the Entertainer as a flamboyant ex-con minister. Brian Van Holt is stuck with the stock part of a corrupt FBI agent.
Herek makes the most of Austin locations, emphasizing local color by setting many scenes on UT campus and employing real-life Texas governor Rick Perry (formally billed as James Richard Perry) to cameo as himself. Production values are average for mid-budget, by-the-numbers studio output.
For the record: “Man of the House” has nothing to do with 1995 Chevy Chase starrer of the same title.