A drag comedy laced with numerous low-comedy set pieces, “Big Momma’s House” sees Martin Lawrence follow his former co-star Eddie Murphy into the salon for a heavy prosthetic makeover. This routine slice of warm-weather entertainment, about an FBI agent who poses as a 300-pound Southern granny in order to catch the bad guy, could have been funnier and considerably better made. But the evidence of everything from “Charley’s Aunt” and “Some Like It Hot” to “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” indicates that you should never underestimate the appeal of a popular star dressed up in women’s clothes for comic effect, so strong returns in wide early summer play look likely.
Skirting by with a PG-13 rating despite constant use of the s-word, scatological farce and even a nude scene featuring the “real” Big Momma, pic will probably be most enjoyed by teens and even preteens not already jaded by loads of R-rated sexcapades, plus general audiences looking for “Nutty Professor”-like good times. And while the quality of the Murphy film is never equaled, there are lowdown laughs to be had from such sights as Lawrence’s street-wise officer trying to keep his disguise intact with an emergency application of duct tape, scratching his bum under his billowing flowered dress and rearranging a melon-size falsie that goes astray.
This is a situation comedy with the emphasis on situation: When a murderous bank robber escapes from prison, FBI man Malcolm Turner (Lawrence) and partner John (Paul Giamatti) lie in wait for him across the street from the Georgia home of the grandmother of the criminal’s former girlfriend, Sherry (Nia Long), who’s headed there for a visit with her young son. When Big Momma takes off for a while, Malcolm hurriedly steps in to assume the guise of the grand old gal, a sassy, lovably no-nonsense matriarch whose girth and bearing equal those of Hattie McDaniel.
Farcically far-fetched solution to a law enforcement challenge forces Malcolm to pass himself off as the real thing for days, not only to Sherry, who fortuitously hasn’t seen her granny in a couple of years, but to her many old friends in town. And while Malcolm’s status as a master of disguise has been established in pic’s opening scene, he still needs John working feverishly upstairs on new and improved padding and phony fat limbs so he can sustain his ruse until the outlaw arrives to reunite with Sherry.
Given that the criminal, Lester (Terrence Howard), doesn’t show up in town until well over an hour in, there’s precious little investigating these feds can do, and therefore hardly any plot. Darryl Quarles and Don Rhymer’s script is basically a premise to be filled with sketchlike comic set pieces, only a few of which come near fulfilling their humorous potential.
Among these scenes: Malcolm hides and mugs behind a shower curtain while the real Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) noisily relieves herself on the toilet, then strips to enter the tub (gross, but fairly funny); Malcolm, in his first attempt to pass himself off as Big Momma, desperately tries to cook a good down-home meal for Sherry and son (pretty lame); “Big Momma” is paged to serve as midwife at a childbirth (boisterous at least); “Big Momma,” in a karate class for oldsters, beats up the instructor (a predictable but welcome release); “Big Momma” and Sherry’s son defeat two playground hotshots at basketball in a contest that ends with you-know-who executing a brilliant slam dunk (not as amusing as the equivalent scene in “Romeo Must Die”); the luscious Sherry cuddles with “Big Momma” in bed, only to be startled by something poking her under the covers (inevitable, but fun anyway); and “Big Momma” is called upon to testify at a raucous church gathering, resulting in her leading a chorus of “Oh Happy Day” (rousing).
But while the effectiveness of these sequences is variable, the sight and sound of Lawrence in fat-lady drag remains engaging throughout; script may often let him down, forcing him to keep things afloat almost single-handedly, but he’s adept enough to pull off all but the thinnest interludes. Thanks to the extremely effective special makeup created by Greg Cannom (who shared Oscars for “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Dracula,” and most recently transformed Robin Williams for “Bicentennial Man”) and Captive Audience, the actor’s looks and personality show through all the silicone, rubber and makeup, and the difference between his Big Momma and the real one is noticeable but subtle enough to allow the viewer to accept the charade.
This proves especially helpful in the frantic finale, when both Lester and the real grandmother show up at the latter’s house in the midst of a surprise party. For a time, the two Mommas are both running around the house without meeting but confounding guests at how quickly she is able to change clothes.
Malcolm’s ultimate unmasking saves the day, of course, but also appalls Sherry, who the agent has courted in his few nondrag moments. No great “Some Like It Hot” capper to this dilemma, but rather a Capraesque mea culpa scene in church that does the trick.
Long is sweet and comely as the object of Malcolm’s frustrated desire, while the remainder of the perfs are as broad as the day is long; seemingly having the most fun is Carl Wright as Big Momma’s perpetually horny old beau.
Director Raja Gosnell goes for the obvious target every time, and the law of averages allows him to hit it every so often. Aside from the makeup work, production values are on the skimpy side, with studioish interiors and Southern California locations not convincing as Deep South substitutes. Soundtrack is crammed to overflowing with hip-hop and funk tunes that are collectively too abrasive and intrusive for a comedy.