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Wasting a Cast of Comedians in the 'Worst' Way

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2001

   


    'What's the Worst That Could Happen?' Danny DeVito and Martin Lawrence are just asking for it in "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (Sam Emerson/MGM)
What's the most routine that could happen?

The answer is "What's the Worst That Could Happen?," the new Martin Lawrence-Danny DeVito comedy that now and then sputters to comic life but more usually wheezes along.

It's based on what must have been a clever novel by old pro Donald Westlake, and you can see his efficient story structure underneath the sometimes-funny, more-often-not plottiness on screen. It's the one about the big thief and the little thief.

The Big Thief – DeVito, of course – is a Boston-based Murdoch-like media mogul named Max Fairbanks who devours all before him with a bird of prey's glee, while cheating, lying, and hiding imperviously behind a high-priced lawyer. His source of income and status is his wife's fortune, which he loots while merrily committing adultery. One night in his beach cottage – that would be a 75-room mansion – he captures a burglar named Kevin Caffery (Lawrence), calls the cops and turns the fellow over to them.

Except that, in a frenzy of machismo and bravura dishonesty, he tells the coppers that an inexpensive ring the burglar is wearing is his own; they strip it from Kevin's finger and turn it over to the gloating Max. Ha, ha, he showed him, didn't he?

But some etiquette between thieves has been ruptured – I guess it's that you don't steal something personal from someone who's merely stolen impersonally from you. The gauntlet has been thrown down and picked up; Kevin has to steal the ring back (he'll take any cash lying around as well) and Max has to stop him. They escalate into something resembling a full-out war.

That's the gist of the story: These two smart, rapacious men, essentially the same but for the scale of their enterprises, become enmeshed in a pointless but irresistible mano a mano over what seems to be the least important thing in the movie, the stolen ring. It reiterates a famous dictum about faculty politics: The fight is so bitter because the stakes are so small. Of course, what is really at risk is each man's sense of being a ruler of the universe.

Played straight, this might have made a neat little thriller. Of course it's played for the broadest of laughs here by the director, comedy professional Sam Weisman – perpetrator of some equally laugh-diluted efforts such as the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn "Out of Towners" and Brendan Fraser's "George of the Jungle" – who never met a pratfall, a phony accent or a mistaken identity he didn't love.

Weisman seems a little out of sorts with his stars, or maybe they're a little out of sorts with the project. Lawrence has always prospered in the kind of movie that treated him like Dr. J.: Everyone backs off and lets him operate. In films like "Big Momma's House," he wasn't in the movie, he was the movie. Yet "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" is, by contrast, a plot-driven ensemble piece, where the story keeps getting larger and larger, the situation more complex, drawing in new characters, and diminishing, reel by reel, the main man's screen time.

It seems that Lawrence's Kevin is part of a criminal subculture as rich and complicated as a Dickens novel, and soon enough he's enlisted his girlfriend Amber (Carmen Ejogo), pal John Leguizamo as a burglaring sidekick, Leguizamo's wife, played by Ana Gasteyer (a big talent, she's wasted here), a computer hacker played by Todd Poudrier, Bernie Mac as Kevin's uncle and mentor, and a few others.

Meanwhile, over in the DeVito part of the story, the cast is also swelling; there's a lot of business with Max's wife (Nora Dunn), his mistress (Sascha Knopf), his secretary (Glenne Headly), his lawyer (Richard Schiff), his security chief (Larry Miller) and on and on until it's gotten so big it even has room for the U.S. Congress! So basically these two dominant performers, Lawrence and DeVito, have been hired for a movie that puts their talent to its least efficient use. Go figure.

The movie becomes increasingly desperate as it becomes increasingly crowded, though now and then a scene pops out at you. In one, Lawrence and Leguizamo are pretending to be Arab billionaires interested in buying a Washington building, merely as a ploy to get into DeVito's apartment. That whole situation isn't terribly amusing; what is amusing is a crazed riff on interpretation the two work, speaking a made-up lingo as if it's the purest classical Arabic, utterly befuddling everyone.

But the only consistent source of humor in the film comes from a least expected source. An actor named William Fichtner, whose big rawboned face usually consigns him to roles as wife-beaters, thugs or abusive fathers (he plays one in "Pearl Harbor"), checks in as a flamboyant Boston detective named Alex Tardio. Imagine Quentin Crisp with a badge as well as two poodles, a fabulous mascara application and a very nice manicure, and you get the picture.

But in the end, the movie collapses under its plot frenzy. Too much time is spent getting in and out of places, pratfalling, and overthinking every situation.

"What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (95 minutes) is rated PG-13 for mild sexual innuendo and a cavalier attitude toward law and order.

 

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