Attempting to double down on the one-joke premise that profitably propelled two earlier franchise entries, “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son” is kind of a drag when it resorts to frantic slapstick and tired action-comedy tropes, but modestly engaging during stretches that suggest the project would have worked better as an exuberant musical. With Martin Lawrence back as the femme-disguised FBI agent he played in “Big Momma’s House” (2000) and “Big Momma’s House 2” (2006), the new sequel should be able to trade on its brand-name appeal for fair-to-middling theatrical B.O. and homevid biz.
Once again, Lawrence’s brash Malcolm Turner dons improbably efficient prosthetics and an amply padded fat suit to disguise himself as Big Momma, a kinda-sorta soul sister of Tyler Perry’s Madea. For “Big Mommas,” Malcolm creatively cross-dresses to go undercover as a housemother at the Georgia Girls School of the Arts, where an informant hid a flash drive containing evidence incriminating a Russian mobster (Tony Curran) before being inconveniently killed.
Complicating the caper, Trent (Brandon T. Jackson), Malcolm’s rebellious 17-year-old stepson, must join his stepdad on campus and pass himself off as Charmaine, Big Momma’s grand-niece, having witnessed the murder of the aforementioned informant.
Director John Whitesell (who helmed “Big Momma’s House 2”) and scripter Matthew Fogel dutifully recycle comic shtick from the previous pics. Predictably, Trent/Charmaine must struggle to maintain his cool and his disguise around scantily clad femme students, and actually falls for a young college-bound beauty (Jessica Lucas) who’s set on earning a music scholarship. Meanwhile, Malcolm/Big Momma tussles with a mean-girl ballet student (Portia Doubleday), and wards off advances from a lovestruck school security guard (an unbilled Faizon Love).
Lawrence comes across as more strident than usual in pic’s early scenes, as he impatiently rousts a mailman (a wasted Ken Jeong) to grab Trent’s college acceptance letter, then condescendingly dismisses his stepson’s desire to become a free-styling rapper instead of a freshman at Duke. Indeed, the actor’s trademark charisma doesn’t begin to shine through until, midway through “Big Mommas,” Lawrence and Jackson share an unexpectedly sweet musical interlude as Malcolm and Trent riff on a classic Temptations tune.
This duet and a handful of other scenes — including an energetic cafeteria-set production number that plays like a “Fame” outtake — likely will make some auds wish the filmmakers had taken even greater advantage of setting their plot in a high school for performing arts students. This is not quite “Big Momma’s House: The Musical.” But maybe it should have been.
In contrast, there’s little that is fresh and nothing at all inventive about scenes involving the brandishing and firing of guns, the unfunny excesses of a putatively comical car chase, and the repetitious sass and brass of Big Momma’s life lessons.
Jackson makes an appealing impression, especially when Trent is able to doff his disguise to woo the charming Lucas. Standouts in the student body include Doubleday, whose character isn’t nearly as bitchy as she initially appears, and Michelle Ang as an unlucky-in-love lovely who gets a crash course in self-respect.
Makeup effects by Spectral Motion are almost too good; it’s more than a little distracting to note how easily Malcolm can hide his mustache with artfully applied prosthetics. Other tech values for this shot-in-Atlanta feature are more than adequate.