June 1, 2001 | Like the early,
tell-tale sniffles that portend a nasty cold, the opening minutes of What's
the Worst That Can Happen? prime you to expect an unpleasant experience.
Martin Lawrence makes his superstar entrance
as Kevin Caffrey, a Boston-based professional thief, while the wily
felon is inspecting the merchandise at a prestigious auction house.
When a snooty employee makes a condescending remark, Kevin responds
with a raunchy monologue that sounds more like the riff of a stand-up
comic who's on a roll than the cagey wordplay of a criminal who's trying
to remain inconspicuous. Logic is trashed and patience is tested during
a tedious cascade of jivey vulgarity. All of which would be forgivable,
you understand, if the rant had the saving grace of actually being – well,
you know, funny. But it isn't.
At this point, you might think the movie has nowhere to go but up. But
you'd be wrong: The rest of this painfully strained comedy provides an
answer to its titular question by living down to your lowered expectations.
Mind you, we're not talking about an eye-glazing, nose-burning stinker
on the order of Tomcats or Freddie Got Fingered .
We're dealing with something slightly less unbearable, but in some ways
even more annoying: A slapdash misfire that brings out the worst in everyone
involved, but fails to provide the perverse thrill that comes only from
a close encounter with the stupefyingly awful. The wall-to-wall cruddiness
of What's the Worst That Can Happen? – insert title-related
joke here – is too debilitating, like a low-grade fever, to inspire anything
as exhilarating as anger or outrage.
Kevin meets Amber Bellhaven (Carmen Ejogo), a beautiful, British-born
anthropologist, and wins her heart by stealing a painting she was forced
to auction to make ends meet. Responding with remarkable nonchalance
to his criminal behavior, Amber expresses her gratitude by giving Kevin
a good-luck ring. That's when his troubles, and ours, begin in earnest.
First, Kevin is caught while looting the beachside mansion of Max Fairbanks
(Danny DeVito), a filthy rich, fiendishly corrupt business mogul who's
far more larcenous than any mere burglar. Then, before the police can
drag Kevin away, Max swipes the lucky ring from the handcuffed felon,
claiming it as his own. Of course, you know this means war.
What follows might qualify as a dual of wits if the movie were at all
witty. Through a series of steadily escalating threats and thefts, Kevin
and various partners in crime make life miserable for the mogul, who
nonetheless remains firm in his refusal to return the stolen ring. This
leads to much shouting, mugging and klutzy pratfalling, very little of
which can be described as amusing. Sam Weisman directs with none of the
flair he evidenced in George of the Jungle and the under-rated Bye,
Bye Love . On the other hand, screenwriter Matthew Chapman sinks
again to the depths he previously plumbed with his absurdly contrived
script for Consenting Adults .
Neither Lawrence nor DeVito is at the top
of his game here – it doesn't
help that neither is playing an especially engaging character -- so it's
up to the supporting players to generate a few mild giggles. Some major
talents (John Leguizamo and Glenne Headly, among others) are wasted in
minor roles, but saucer-eyed, basso-voiced Bernie Mac (from The Original
Kings of Comedy ) has a couple of comical moments as Kevin's fence and
And William Fichtner almost single-handedly
makes the movie worth seeing – on
home video if not in a first-run theater – with his slyly audacious performance
in a role that, in lesser hands, could have been an irredeemably offensive
gay stereotype. Fichtner plays Alex Tardio, a sly, swishy Boston police
detective whose mincing and lisping do little to disguise his formidable
cunning. We laugh with, not at, this guy because the joke is on everyone
else: The insouciantly self-assured Tardio is easily the brightest person
in the whole movie, and certainly the most comfortable in his own skin.
Unfortunately, there isn't nearly enough room for Fichtner in this overpopulated
but under-written comedy.
The script, incidentally, is based on a
novel in Don E. Westlake's popular series of comic thrillers about
master thief John Dortmund. The character also has appeared – under different names, played by various actors – in
such earlier Westlake adaptations as The Hot Rock (Robert Redford), Bank
Shot (George C. Scott) and Why Me? (Christopher Lambert).
Martin Lawrence is the first African-American to tackle the role, and the
first actor of any color to appear so heavily made-up during every moment
he's in character. At times, he seems to be using the same latex masks
he employed in Big Bad Mama . At other times, his face has the
eerily artificial texture of a digitized bit player in Shrek .
And then there are those soft-focus close-ups, which make him look blurrier
than Warren Beatty in Town & Country . Is there something
wrong with Lawrence ? I mean, besides his choice of movie projects?