Utterly formulaic and, with the exception of a few scenes, distastefully fake, Robert Townsend’s new screwball comedy, “B.A.P.S.,” is a modern fairy tale that imposes the premise of “Pretty Woman” on the familiar fish-out-of-water format. Lacking potent or timely concepts, this spring release will enjoy a moderate theatrical run, supported by mostly middle-class black viewers, with limited crossover appeal but slightly brighter video prospects.
Shamelessly pandering to the audience with her simplistic version of the American Dream, screenwriter Troy Beyer (who also plays a supporting part in the film) has constructed a fantasy-like narrative, made up of bits and pieces of successful comedies of the last decade, most notably “Pretty Woman,” “Arthur” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” The characterization of the black protagonists is so shallow and one-dimensional that if white filmmakers had made the movie they might have been charged with racial stereotyping.
Tale begins at a greasy spoon in Decatur, Ga., where best friends Nisi (Halle Berry) and Mickey (Natalie Desselle) work as waitresses while fantasizing about a better life. Stuck in unfulfilling jobs, and dating unambitious men well beneath their level, they dream of breaking free from their daily grind — and opening a business, the world’s first combo restaurant and hair salon. Opportunity knocks when Nisi learns about an open casting call for a Heavy D video in L.A. She persuades her hesitant buddy Mickey to fly to California for the audition, convinced she can win the $10,000 top prize.
But they’re tossed out of the audition. As the pair contemplate their options, a chauffeur named Antonio (Luigi Amodeo), who had watched Nisi’s sexy preparation for the audition, offers them roles in another musicvideo, one to be shot by his rich boss, Mr. Blakemore (Martin Landau), who owns a huge estate in Beverly Hills.
Upon arrival at the elegant mansion, things take yet another unexpected twist, when Blakemore’s nephew, Isaac (Jonathan Fried), negates Antonio’s offer and tells the women of Lily, his ailing uncle’s one true love; he was discouraged from pursuing Lily because she was his family’s black housekeeper. To please his uncle, Isaac asks Nisi to pose for a week as Lily’s granddaughter. In turn, she and her friend will be provided room and board in the mansion, plus a nice cash reward.
The women settle in the house and, predictably, their presence immediately delights Blakemore, but initially upsets his stiff longtime butler, Manley (Ian Richardson). Under their influence, Blakemore regains his zest for life. The trio bond, and in a series of montages reminiscent of “Pretty Woman,” they go on a Rodeo Drive shopping spree, dancing in hot clubs, and so on.
To disrupt the triangle’s bliss, scripter Beyer introduces some schematic complications, such as an implausible plot involving the attempt to bilk the millionaire out of his fortune. And following the pattern of numerous films, there’s mutual learning: The old, aristocratic man instructs the unrefined women in matters of taste and etiquette, transforming them into black American princesses (hence the title), and in turn the good-hearted women rejuvenate him with their inherent gaiety and sincerity.
Over the last decade, helmer Townsend has acquired some technical skills, and, indeed, some of pic’s montages are smoothly executed and visually pleasing. But he has not gained much subtlety or sophistication since “The Five Heartbeats” and “Meteor Man” — his earnest approach tends to make this story of cultural collision and life enhancement even more literal and explicit than it is on the page.
Still, considering that “B.A.P.S.” is a thin and basically plotless comic construct, the lead thesps get amazing mileage from their roles. Landau invests his role of the benevolent patriarch with persuasiveness and charm, and vet Richardson, in a role that’s a variant of John Gielgud’s in “Arthur,” has much-needed eloquence and style.
There’s also good chemistry between newcomer Desselle and the beautiful Berry, though the latter may come off as too intelligent and refined to play a crass character (in the early scenes, Nisi flaunts a huge blond hairdo and gold teeth).
Keith Brian Burns’ colorful production design and Ruth Carter’s outrageous, kitschy costumes (including a neon-orange plastic outfit and a leopard-skin suit) continue to engage the eyes even when the ears get weary from the often banal text