Undercover Brother

"Ain't no thang."

Undercover Brother may be the most deadpan comedy I have ever seen; it takes some time to realize that it’s satire, not social commentary. As such, it has the right mindset, but not always the right material. The movie, well-received by critics and audiences, is often funny, sometimes brilliant, but it doesn’t do the one thing that would have made it great: go over the top. A movie like this can’t be timid, fearful. It has to go a step beyond propriety, not necessarily in the gross-out direction, but towards the bizarre, the inappropriate, the non sequitur, the unexpected.

Could be that this is just my twisted sense of humor talking. But the comedies I’ve loved the most have always been the ones that had the courage to be odd, sometimes inscrutable. Zoolander, the Austin Powers franchise, Mr. Bean, the collected works of Mel Brooks: all these films had a tendency to make your head spin with their sheer loopiness before making you laugh. Undercover Brother has its moments — and a great premise — but it’s too straightforward, too easy.

The story involves a secret organization called the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. (the acronym is never deciphered), concerned with the status of black people in society. It’s run by The Chief (Chi McBride), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), Conspiracy Brother (Dave Chapelle) and Lance (Neil Patrick Harris), the only white member. Their main charge at the moment is General Warren Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), the first black candidate for president with a legitimate chance at the office.

When the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D finds out that The Man and his henchman Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan) have used mind-altering drugs on the General to convince him to drop his candidacy and open a chain of Fried Chicken restaurants instead, they decide to enlist Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), the afro-sporting super-soul-hero of the everyday black man, to help them.

Hilarity sometimes ensues, though a hysterical opening sequence is followed by some long stretches of not a hell of a lot. Denise Richards shows up as White She-Devil, an agent of The Man sent to subvert Undercover Brother, but who eventually takes a liking to the guy, There’s a weird fully-clothed shower scene between White She-Devil and Sistah Girl that’s one of the movie’s highlights for a few reasons.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Undercover Brother himself isn’t given much to do. Both the laughs and the action almost invariably stem from the hit-and-miss supporting cast (Dave Chapelle joins Chris Tucker in evidently believing that comedy consists of screeching annoyingly). Eddie Griffin is a funny guy — his stand-up act, as evidenced in the otherwise awful Foolish is renowned — but he’s just standing around. Can’t be good when your title character is standing around.

There are moments in Undercover Brother when we get hints of what the movie could have been. A commercial for the General’s Fried Chicken, complete with overweight back-up singers, os riotously absurd. During a press conference in which the General announces his new plan, a reporter asks anxiously: “Will there be side dishes?” There’s a handful more of these. The rest of the movie, sadly, relies on lampooning already-lampooned blaxploitation cliches, and Conspiracy Brother’s irritating, lame “theories.” I laughed, but my head remained firmly in place.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Street of Chance

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