- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

''Big Momma's House," which showcases Martin Lawrence in a raucous update of the "Charley's Aunt" school of masquerade farce, doesn't waste much breath on subtlety.

Mr. Lawrence serves up the occasional zinger while disguised as heavyweight matriarch Hattie Mae Pierce, a k a Big Momma to friends and relatives.

For example, when doting on a grandson called Trent, Big Momma wistfully observes, "They grow up so fast, what with the color TV and all."

As a rule, though, it's gangway for slapstick exaggeration as long as Mr. Lawrence has taken the trouble to sustain female impersonation of a portly magnitude.

The pretext is that he's Malcolm, an FBI agent who is a specialist in disguises. While staking out Big Momma's house in a Georgia town called Cottersville, where an estranged daughter, Nia Long as Sherry, has fled with her son Trent and possibly incriminating evidence of her association with a bank robber called Lester (Terrence Howard), freshly escaped from prison, Malcolm seizes an opportunity to impersonate the resident.

Naturally, he falls for the slightly suspect Sherry while trying to gauge her honesty and then protect her from Lester, who arrives just in time to encounter a set of Big Mommas (Mr. Lawrence and actress Ella Mitchell) at a surprise party.

The movie establishes a gratifying superiority over "Mission: Impossible, Part II" by making the hero's aptitude for disguises clear from the outset.

Indeed, we see Malcolm and his sidekick, John (Paul Giamatti), making an initial face mask for their Big Momma double and then constructing parts of her bulky anatomy.

In this context, it's even OK for bits of the disguise to misfire or fall off with some frequency. Anyway, it's easier to suspend disbelief about Malcolm's masquerade.

Nothing in "Big Momma's House" is as idiotic as the interlude near the finale of "M:I-2" when it appears that Tom Cruise must have miraculously pulled two masks out of his hat to deceive the villain.

Mr. Lawrence's best sequence in full disguise comes a bit late in the plot: a Sunday service during which Malcolm feels the spirit and ends up leading the congregation in a jubilant chorus of "O, Happy Day."

He also bumps into himself, in a manner of speaking, because the minister also is Mr. Lawrence in disguise.

Although the movie is too crass and anxious to fine-tune the contrasts, the gulf between Malcolm and the bogus Hattie Mae shrinks in appealing ways as the plot barrels along.

The disguise itself is oddly endearing because Hattie Mae seems to bear a strong facial resemblance to Charles Laughton in his serene maturity as the clever solons of "Spartacus" and "Advise and Consent."

Mr. Lawrence also is becoming a more attractive focus of comic sympathy and identification as he grows older and acquires a more pensive aspect.

What he cannot seem to command just yet is a professional support apparatus comparable to the ones that reinforce Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey in their most ambitious and accomplished farces.

"Big Momma's House" backslides a trifle: It looks more makeshift than "Blue Streak," which appeared to upgrade and streamline the typical Lawrence vehicle.

Nevertheless, even at its smuttiest or tackiest, "Big Momma's House" retains a friendly, affectionate zest that helps compensate for atrocious taste and botched gags.

It's easier to like than "Road Trip," for example, which finds it necessary to crash a black fraternity during one sequence to give its oblivious white characters a fleeting glimpse of solidarity and community.

That is, of course, a typical form of apologetic condescension in Hollywood. In a Martin Lawrence comedy, you can more or less eliminate the need for it, an undisguised blessing.

TWO STARS

TITLE: "Big Momma's House"

RATING: PG-13 (Systematic slapstick vulgarity; fleeting profanity, nudity, scatological gags and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Raja Gosnell

RUNNING TIME: About 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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