Of all the fabulously rich, wildly famous, and beloved stars in our cultural firmament, the one I feel the saddest about is Lisa Kudrow. In 200-plus episodes of Friends, she has shown the world her perfect timing, her physical aplomb, and, once in a blue moon, her soulfulness. But most people regard her as a one-note virtuoso, a Paganini of ditz. I feel lucky to have seen another side. I met Kudrow a couple of times in 1991, when she did a reading of a somewhat elephantine draft of a play I’d written: She made the dumb lines sound smart and the smart ones Wildean; I had a sense of not just her comic gifts but her complete commitment to her (iffy) material. She was also nice.
It’s too bad she broke out so fast. She was marvelous in the L.A.-based improv group the Groundlings, and if she’d gone to Saturday Night Live, she might have created a whole raft of comic types instead of getting stuck with airheads exclusively. Only two of her performances outside of Friends and Mad About You have excited me: Her turn as the bitter, ill-at-ease older sister in Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex (1998) and her more athletic and exuberant ditz in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), in which she and Mira Sorvino had a delicious, leggy accord. The word is that she’s startlingly good—and different—as the drab, disappointed wife of the porn star John Holmes (Val Kilmer) in the upcoming Wonderland.
In the meantime, we have the Kudrow vehicle Marci X, which has been in the can for a year or two (at least) and has now been dumped into theaters with no screenings and no fanfare. I was first in line: You never know. The premise is neat—that is, both nifty and overly tidy: A rich Jewish American princess (Kudrow), the daughter of a media mogul (Richard Benjamin, who also directed), takes the reins of a rap label that her dad didn’t know he owned until it became the target of a censorious senator (Christine Baranski). As she attempts to convince the label’s potty-mouthed, misogynistic star, Dr. S (Damon Wayans)—whose songs include “The Power in My Pants” and “It Ain’t My Baby Because I Don’t Like You”—to repent on MTV, she finds herself strangely attracted to this rap rapscallion.
The screenwriter, Paul Rudnick, gives Kudrow some good bits in the first half of the film. Presenting a humanitarian award at an American Jewish Federation ceremony, she surveys the moneyed crowd and says, tenderly, “You Jews. You wonderful Jews. Who needs Santa Claus, am I right?” And when Marci is challenged to do a spontaneous rap before a hostile, African-American audience, Kudrow almost pulls off the number—about the power that’s not in her pants, but in her (groan) purse. If the context of Marci X were more realistic, a lot of these gags would soar. But the context is drag-show dinner theater.
Rudnick is a very, very funny man; I loved the scene in which two of Marci’s JAP friends lament the tragedy of the urban poor (“Can you imagine being addicted to heroin?” “Mmmm … But does the weight stay off?”); and there’s a riotous bad-taste bit at an auction to make money for kids who can’t raise their arms. But Rudnick is too comfortable in his camp little universe: When he writes broad comedy, he makes it seem as if it’s beneath him to include real emotion; and his targets (the primly repressive Republican senator, the duplicitous Latina sex bomb, the effeminate ‘N Sync-like quartet, etc.) are fat and obvious. Rudnick is onto something wonderful when he riffs on the connection between nouveau-riche Jews and millionaire rappers: The best moment in Marci X is when Marci regards Dr. S’ Siberian-chinchilla coat and says he reminds her of her Aunt Esther. But Marci doesn’t grow or change as a character; as the movie drags on, she gets duller and more passive. And Kudrow is horribly photographed, with lighting that makes her skin look chalky and her nostrils cavernous.
At least Kudrow won’t get the blame for Marci X: What really sinks the movie is Wayans. There must have been hundreds—thousands?—of African-American actors out there who could have brought an edge and some sexual threat to Dr. S. But Wayans plays the role with a high, mincing singsong that might have worked for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince but doesn’t begin to suggest the sullen, macho insolence of most rappers. He’s girlier than his co-star. As for Kudrow, her cinematic future looks brighter in darker roles. Next stop: Wonderland.