J. Edgar Hoover would spin in his grave if he saw how the Federal Bureau of Investigation nabs their nemesis in director Raja Gosnell's "Big Mama's House." This boisterous but barely original drag comedy thriller casts comedian Martin Lawrence as a streetwise, gung ho FBI agent who disguises himself as a rambunctious 325-pound African-American grandmother in Georgia so he can capture an escaped murderer out to recover $2-million in missing loot from a bank robbery. Although not nearly as exciting as "Blue Streak," "Big Momma's House" is a hundred times funnier. When Martin Lawrence transforms himself with prosthetics and padding into obese grandmother Hattie May Pierce, "Big Momma's House" makes up for all its lapses in logic with loads (and lards) of laughter.
When Sherry Pierce (Nia Long of "Soul Food") learns that her deadly ex-boyfriend, convicted bank robber Lester Vesco (suave Terrence Howard of "Pride"), has bluffed his way out of prison and is on the prowl, she packs up her young son Trent (Jascha Washington of "Three Strikes"), and they leave Los Angeles. Lester wants to retrieve the $2-million in cash that he stole from the bank. The authorities have suspected for a long time that Sherry may have helped him, but because they never found the loot they have left her alone. Meanwhile, the FBI has anticipated Sherry's move to contact her grandmother in Cartersville, Georgia, so they dispatch agents Malcolm Turner (Martin Lawrence) and his white partner John (Paul Giamatti of "Sideways") to set up an around-the-clock surveillance on Hattie May Pierce (Ella Mitchell of "Lord Shango"). Just as Sherry rolls into town, Hattie May rolls out to tend a sick friend. Desperately, afraid they will lose their only chance to catch Lester, Malcolm mimics Big Momma on the phone and encourages Sherry to visit her. Feverishly, Malcolm and John whip together an unconvincing replica of Hattie May that Malcolm wears to hoodwink the gullible Sherry.
Martin Lawrence is the whole show in "Big Momma's House." If you love Lawrence (toned to a PG-13 rating), you'll laugh your ribs raw at his amusing antics. Most of "Big Momma's" humor springs from her rotund physique. The bathroom humor may offend some, but the scene where Malcolm's Hattie May delivers a baby with Cisco and a toilet plunger is alone worth watching. "Big Momma" proves that a crowd-pleasing comedy need not bow to logic. Hattie May on the basketball court trouncing two tough street kids at hoops; defeating a bumbling self-defense instructor; and give a sermon in church is funny but not for a moment believable. Martin Lawrence's energetic performance (as Martin again) overshadows these glaring mistakes.
"Never Been Kissed" director Raja Gosnell milks "Big Momma's House" strictly for laughs. Some scenes will split your sides if you aren't careful. Gosnell refuses to indulge himself on the action scenes. Further, he gives short shrift to Terrence Howard's felonious escapee. Howard hovers on the periphery but never makes a deep impression. Although the Feds classify Lester as a cold-blooded killer, he spares a rent-a-cop's life. Repeatedly, Lester embraces adversaries with uncharacteristic charity. As a result, "Big Momma" emerges as a slick, sympathetic, one dimensional screwball comedy with only the stretch marks of serious drama. No antagonism burns like a fuse between Lester and Malcolm, and their showdown brawl is absurdly brief. Ostensibly, since this lackluster villain poses a minimal threat to either heroine or hero, the film lacks any dramatic catharsis. At best, as a director, Gosnell is efficient; at worst, he is a hack. Happily, he keeps this formulaic fracas moving at a brisk clip and confines it to a trim 97 minutes.
The romance between Malcolm and Sherry sputters until he dons latex thighs and flour sack breasts. They make a generic couple, and their romance seems like supplemental fodder to flesh. Of course, while it adds depth, the filmmakers fail to make something out of it. Moreover, Malcolm breaks character, showing an interest in Sherry. John warns Malcolm that he is treading thin ice in his dealings with Sherry. For somebody who refused to be tied-down to a family, Malcolm appears hell-bent on courting Sherry and impressing Trent. Naturally, since Malcolm loves Sherry, any doubts in anybody's mind about the issue of Sherry's guilt should disappear. Any relationship with a character other than "Big Momma," however, takes second place, so Malcolm lusts after Sherry in disguise. Sounds rather perverted, doesn't it? The flashlight scene in bed between them (prominently featured in the film's trailers) gets a chuckle.
Clearly, scenarists Darryl ("Soldier Boyz") Quarles and Don Rhymer derived inspiration for "Big Momma's House" from cross-dressing cinematic classics, such as "Chris Columbus' "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959), and Sydney Pollack's "Toostie" (1982) as well as romantic shoot'em ups like John Badham's "Stakeout" (1987) and F. Gary Gray's "Set It Off" (1996). Like the Richard Dreyfuss cop in "Stakeout," Malcolm is determined to help Sherry, even if it intrudes on his ethics. Sherry's relationship with a notorious bank robber recalls a similar conflict in Vivica A. Fox's relationship with a bank robber and her subsequent firing in "Set It Off." Sadly, despite the best efforts of Quarles and Rhymer, "Big Momma's House" amounts to little more than a series of cleverly staged vignettes a la Flip Wilson's Geraldine of Lawrence dodging into and out of character as a mammoth matriarch. Quarles and Rhymer stretch "Big Momma" beyond the bounds of anybody's credibility to accommodate some of the most absurd premises. A blind man could easily distinguish Martin's Hattie May from Ella Mitchell's Hattie May. Ella is bigger than Martin. Essentially, the filmmakers ask us to believe that Big Momma's lifelong friends would not be able to spot an imposter on the spot.
Again, if you hate Martin Lawrence, don't enter "Big Momma's House." Despite all of the obvious narrative flaws, especially in its flaky logic, Martin Lawrence's wide-eyed, rude humor and his prosthetic posturings redeem this crime comedy.