Makin’ Copies

Rob Schneider is on familiar ground in The Animal; Martin Lawrence is all over the place in What’s the Worst That Could Happen?. 

The Animal
Directed by Luke Greenfield
Columbia Pictures

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Directed by Sam Weisman

One of our culture’s most insistent mysteries is how some of the most sardonic actors and writers in American television could bring such a Neanderthal sensibility to American cinema. With rare exceptions (parts of the Austin Powers sequel [1999], The Wedding Singer [1998]), the presence of a Saturday Night Live name in a feature film is a virtual guarantee of lousiness—of a mixture of freneticism and torpor that could once have been written off to cocaine abuse but that now feels shrewdly calculated. Kids seem to like their comedies coarse. When Mike Myers pulled his Dieter movie out of production for the sole reason that the script stank, industry executives regarded him as nuts—and from a bottom-line perspective, they were probably right. No matter how terrible it was, Myers could have gotten by: Joe Dirt grossed $28 million.

In The Animal, meanwhile, a perfectly decent second-banana, Rob Schneider, has been over-optimistically elevated to the top of the bunch. He’s lucky that the last SNL second-banana vehicle, the above-named David Spade opus, was like some medieval, bowel-liquefying plague: Next to Joe Dirt, The Animal is tolerably amusing. (Next to Joe Dirt, it’s urbane.) In the funniest scene, its hero, Marvin Mange (Schneider)—a man saved from death by a scientist who sews in sundry animal parts—finds himself side by side with an orangutan that won’t stop slapping him. There’s something about that long, spindly, red-haired arm delivering smacks to Schneider’s fat head that slays me; and I like the indignant look that Schneider gives back, like Curly only without Curly’s whinny-yip of frustration, and the severe nipple twist that sends the monkey into a frenzy. Schneider and the orangutan have a magical rapport.

As you might surmise, I don’t ask for much from my slapstick farces. Along with many baby boomers, I came of age with Don Knotts comedies and Disney movies featuring Dean Jones at war with irrepressible cats, dogs, monkeys, ghosts, and Volkswagens—I know how little it takes to please the kiddies. The Animal will be a big hit. But Schneider’s zest for humiliation would make even Don Knotts blanch. An aspiring policeman dubbed “Piss Stains” for the condition of his trousers, Marvin never meets a grade-schooler who doesn’t have the urge to pelt him with fruit and call him a loser, and even his Walter Mittyish fantasies of heroism end in disgrace. After his animal transplant, Marvin becomes an asset to the cops with his ability to sniff out drugs that have been wedged up people’s backsides; and when he meets a nature-loving lass named Rianna (Colleen Haskell, from Survivor, in her acting debut), he marks off his territory by urinating on her doorstep.

Marvin is a role for a kamikaze physical comedian—a Steve Martin or a Jim Carrey, a clown whose anger is released by transfiguration. But Schneider, with his fuzzy corona of hair and sad eyes, doesn’t seem liberated by his animal additions. Even when he snarls, he’s mild and sane and thoughtful—annoyed but never unhinged. He’s wonderful when he saunters up to a goat in heat and tries to put the moves on her—it’s a tight little shtick, like his classic SNL copy-machine nerd. But when he watches a woman bend over in a short tight dress and begins thrusting himself against a mailbox, the bit isn’t dirty enough. Those are PG thrusts.

The director, Luke Greenfield, underlines all the gags and adds a few exclamation points, so the punch lines would seem redundant even if we hadn’t seen them all in the preview or on television. (Is there a single comic payoff that isn’t in the preview?) The Animal does, however, have an unexpected subplot in which Marvin’s African-American friend (Guy Torry) complains bitterly about reverse-discrimination. He’s incensed at the way white people, out of liberal guilt, routinely ignore his flagrant misdemeanors for fear of offending him—which he demonstrates by provoking them in various ways and watching them pass, stone-faced. I’m curious how these scenes will play when screened for some of our prison population.

Colleen Haskell wasn’t the brightest camper on Survivor, but she seemed genuinely nice and she sure was cute: I remember thinking, as she ingenuously displayed her chigger-gnawed thighs to the camera, “This is a movie star.” Well, she isn’t a movie star, but she sure is cute. It’s always a waste to cast real actresses in sweetly oblivious straight-woman roles like these anyway, and Colleen’s sunny, relaxed, squinchy-eyed presence is a godsend—a breeze from the relatively civilized entertainment that was Survivor.

If Rob Schneider is a fine verbal comedian who’s out of his element in slapstick, Martin Lawrence is a broad physical comedian who’s out of his element in finery. He’s all over the place in What’s the Worst Thing That Could Happen?, in which he has been cast as a canny thief called Kevin Caffery—better known, in the fun Donald E. Westlake novel and series on which this film is based, as John Dortmunder. The astoundingly prolific Westlake has written a couple of first-rate screenplays (The Stepfather [1987], The Grifters [1990]), but neither he nor anyone else (including William Goldman) has ever successfully translated Dortmunder to the screen with the con man’s droll irritation intact. The movies come out desperate instead of deadpan.

Lawrence is the worst thing that could happen to Dortmunder: When cocky, he channels Eddie Murphy; when cringing, Richard Pryor. But the movie made me laugh a lot anyway. It has a big, inventive cast of loons and a great premise: When Caffery gets caught robbing the mansion of a media baron, Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito), the gloating little titan seizes the thief’s own ring—a gift from Caffery’s beloved (Carmen Ejogo)—and claims it as his own. What follows is a ferocious tug-of-war between two titanic egos, with the thief and his resourceful team (a much more interesting bunch than the one in Mission: Impossible) robbing all of Fairbanks’ homes in the hopes of sending the megalomaniac over the edge.

It’s unusual to see a comedy with such painterly, high-toned cinematography (by Anastas N. Michos), but it doesn’t detract from the movie’s scruffy, improvisatory feel. The director, Sam Weisman, turns the actors loose, so you get John Leguizamo (as Caffery’s buddy) doing a riotous impersonation of a sheik’s lackey (his nonsense talk climaxes with “Salaam alechem!”), and William Fichtner tossing his Prince Valiant hair as a poofy investigator. The superb Richard Schiff plays Fairbanks’ lawyer, who suffers, sad-eyed, through the mogul’s baroquely obscene tirades. DeVito gives every scene a charge—it’s too bad that he has played this role so many times that there’s no surprise in watching him work himself up. No, that’s not quite true: In the movie’s best scene, a Senate hearing covered by C-SPAN, he bellows curses at Kevin through the TV set, and the interpreter for the hearing-impaired helpfully pantomimes every four-letter word. You can do low-brow comedy with elegance.