(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) I’m nearly always willing to give spoofs a chance (well, except for the Seltzer/Freidberg stuff, which is just terrible no matter what), but while I gave cautiously favourable reviews to Marlon Wayans’ two A Haunted House spoofs, there’s no such joy to be found in his Fifty Shades of Black, a dull retelling of Fifty Shades of Gray (the movie, not the book) without much wit or humour. You may reasonably argue that it’s hard to do anything with that source material, but that’s not entirely true—Fifty Shades of Black’s best moments come when it questions the source material and gives more agency to the female protagonist. More along that vein (and something beyond simply complaining about the prose in the original book) could have done wonders to make the film better. As it now stands, however, Fifty Shades of Black has too little material to play with: By solely riffing on the original film and not bringing in more sources of inspiration, the film is reduced to an exasperating scene by scene walkthrough of the original, with a comedic approach that quickly becomes predictable. The two A Haunted House could at least vary their approach by switching from one source of inspiration to another, and thus impose some coherence to their approach rather than being subservient (if using that word is appropriate in this context) to the original. Even at barely more than 90 minutes, Fifty Shades of Black feels far too long. This being said, it’s sort of remarkable that neither Marlon Wayans nor Kali Hawk come across too badly as performers: Hawk in particular seems game to try anything in service of a laugh, while Wayans remains very likable as a comedian even given the lines he’s written for himself. It’s a shame that he doesn’t try to get better material.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) White Chicks is far from being the first movie in which what we see falls short of what the film wants us to see, but this cross-dressing comedy in which two black men impersonate two white women is notable for the chasm between visuals and screenplay. The two Wayans brothers (Shawn and Marlon) playing upper-society white girls do so under layers of top-notch makeup appliances, but the result is squarely inside the uncanny valley hideousness. We, as viewers, never believe. It’s a fair bet that the film itself never think we’re going to believe either, but the damage has been done by then. It certainly doesn’t help that all of this cross-dressing white-facing effort is in the service of a dead-simple script in which the criminal plotline is merely a clothesline on which to hang various comic set pieces. It’s not hard to dig into the film and come up with examples of social critique of gender and racial roles, but let’s be honest: This is a dumb comedy, not a piece of cutting satire. As such, it’s hit and miss: The film feels too long, with unwarranted cheap shots and lazy set pieces. The Wayans do OK as the leads, but they curiously get upstaged by Terry Crews, who manages to overcome repellent writing by sheer force of charisma: When his character is not written as offensive, Crews is downright charming. (Something that’s true of a surprising number of his early roles.) Otherwise, there isn’t much to say: White Chicks is comedy based on contrivances, not the least of them being the conceit that white-faced cross-dressers can pass as attractive upper-class young women. It only works with a generous amount of belief, which presupposes that viewers are willing to work with such a broad kind of comedy.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Even I am sometimes astonished at the kind of dumb comedy movie that I find funny, and I’m unwilling to go much further down the totem pole of stupidity than A Haunted House 2. A Marlon Wayans parody of recent horror films (most notably Insidious, Sinister, The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity), A Haunted House 2 seemingly has no filter – given the onslaught of crude and puerile humor (usually accompanied by loud shrieks), I’d be wary of watching it with anyone else. (It doesn’t help that the sexual content of the film often goes beyond the limits of what’s usually seen in mainstream comedies.) It fires ten gags per minute, and lands maybe one or two of those. Still, that’s a lot of comic energy (especially from Wayans himself, willing to do anything for a laugh), and I can forgive long unfunny stretches if these are occasional smirks along the way. I will admit that it’s not as good (if good is a word worth using) than the first one, which at least had one or two halfway decent moments and a semblance of thematic depth to its comical hijinks. Still, I’m an easy mark for that kind of film, largely because unlike the bottom-of-the-barrel Friedberg/Setzer “parodies”, this one actually tries for laughs beyond simple re-creation of iconic sequences and slapstick violence. I may feel guilty about it, but A Haunted House 2 gets an “eh, had a few laughs” from me.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) I remain a fan of the first Paranormal Activity, but I’ll be the first to admit that the film (and the found-footage genre) remains ripe for parody. “A Wayans brother stars in a black-themed Paranormal Activity spoof” is the only thing you really need to know about A Haunted House: The Wayans have their own brand of comedy, and it’s almost exactly what we get here. You know: Lame scene recreations, found-footage parody gags, a bit of slapstick, quite a bit of sexual humor (much of it wearingly homophobic), a surprising amount of shrill screaming from Marlon Wayans and a few tossed-away bits of relationship humor. It sounds worse than it is, because for all of its cheap and tired humor, A Haunted House is easy to like. There’s a solid core in the premise that our protagonist’s girlfriend moves in and both have to adapt to the new situation (to say that the film offers a thematic metaphor for the way relationships evolve once both partners live together is stretching the depth argument to its breaking point, though) and both Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins are game for just about everything as the couple finding that their house is haunted by a demon. Far from every gag works, but those who do are plentiful enough to raise grins and chuckles throughout a good portion of the film. Characters at least try to have believable reactions (My favourite moment in the film is when the protagonist leaves and puts up the house for sale, only to come back dejected once he realizes that “you can’t sell a house in this market!”. That and the bit where the lead couple does its best to act nonchalantly at the demon’s antics while the entire kitchen goes crazy around them.), the script eventually becomes a great deal less episodic than could have been expected after the first half, and frankly gets a bit more mileage than could have been expected from the thin premise. The film has numerous issues (the laugh-free ending is weak, and the homophobia is only exceeded by the misogyny through which the female characters are defined), but anyone going into A Haunted House with low expectations and tolerance for good-natured juvenile humor is likely to get, if not a great time, at least a satisfactory number of chuckles.