Working to help black people everywhere, Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin, "The New Guy") is the coolest retro hero since Shaft. When Mr. Big and his right hand man, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), conjure a plan to spread whiteness all around the globe through a brainwashed African-American presidential hopeful (Billy Dee Williams), it's up to Undercover Brother and the Brotherhood (featuring Aunjanue Ellis as Sistah Girl, Gary Anthony Williams as Smart Brother and Dave Chappelle as Conspiracy Brother) to stop Mr. Feather and his secret weapon, White She-Devil (Denise Richards), from taking down the black man once and for all.
"Undercover Brother" (IMDb listing) comes from the mind of John Ridley, who has taken his series of Internet shorts and brought them to the big screen. Ridley invented the character, co-wrote the script and produces, but he doesn't direct the film. That honor goes to Malcolm D. Lee, the helmer of the deeply flawed 1999 picture "The Best Man." With two distinctly different creative minds vying for space in the same film, "Brother" often stinks of the push and pull decision-making process that knocks broad comedies like this down for the count. Ridley wants "Brother" to be a highly comedic representation of the eradication of popular African-American culture, and how one man fights to keep it alive. Lee wants "Brother" to be his "Austin Powers," using cheap and unfunny retro jokes and pop culture satire to seed his own desire for a franchise to call his own. Lee and Universal Studios even brought in Michael McCullers to co-write the script, his being one of the two minds behind the "Austin Powers" franchise.
Whereas "Powers" has the meticulous eye of Mike Myers guiding it to the land of heavenly laughs, "Brother" is grabby with its bits and often excruciatingly unfunny. It hits every joke hard, as if the audience can't be trusted to understand all of the weak jokes paraded in front of them. Undercover Brother's inability to stomach mayonnaise (the "white man's hot sauce")? Funny. Lee employing tight close-ups and inexcusably broad sound effects every time this joke reappears? Not funny. A muzak version of Sisqo's "The Thong Song" playing in the background? Funny. White She-Devil walking into the frame and asking if this is the muzak version of Sisqo's "The Thong Song?" Not funny. Undercover Brother avoiding danger while keeping a cool grasp on his orange soda Big Gulp? Funny. Lee repeating the exact same sequence before the final credits? Again, not that funny. "Brother" continually plays like this, hammering home the humor with all the skill and subtlety of Baby Huey on a sugar binge. Not that subtlety should always be the name of the game, but Lee is treading the exact same ground as Keenan Ivory Wayans did with his classic "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!" from 1988. Wayans built a tower of laughs carefully in his romp, not pushing the comedic buttons on the stereotype jokes (a hysterical, when tastefully done, all too rare commodity) or the retro 1970s blacksploitation riffs until the exact moment when you just can't hold it in anymore. Lee unloads all of these jokes right away in the first three minutes, then takes the remaining 80 minutes to sort them all out.
Miscasting also dampens the fun. I can think of three other African-American actors/comedians who could've done so much more with the Brother character than Eddie Griffin does. Griffin is the very definition of an acquired taste, and I've never found the energy to indulge him. He's too obvious as the Undercover Brother, winking at the audience in a way that sucks the life out of the very idea for the character. Brother is very aware of his style and his demeanor, and Griffin doesn't seem like he's enjoying himself as much as he should. He's trying too hard in a film that is made too self-consciously. Give me Bernie Mac, Mike Epps or even Dave Chappelle (who manages to dig up some laughs in "Brother" as the gun-toting Conspiracy Brother) in the role of Undercover Brother, and you wouldn't have to lift a finger to get laughs. Instead we get Griffin, who works overtime to find anything of value in this movie, failing at every turn.
Also misfiring is Kattan. A pleasure on "Saturday Night Live," Kattan is wasted as the villain in "Brother." His character, Mr. Feather, has a peculiar problem in that he's a raging white devil, but cannot help indulging in the urban influence taking over the world. A clever concept, but Lee fails to explain this until about an hour in, making Kattan's previously-seen bizarre gyrations and outbursts of slang wholly confusing. Kattan isn't having much fun with his "evil whitey" role, and when it comes time to parade his physical comedy, patterned after his "Mango" character on "SNL," well, it's just hard to even look up at the screen.
It's distressing to dismiss "Undercover Brother," as films of this sort are usually pretty amusing (another similar romp can be found in last summer's side-splitting, African-American superhero film, "Pootie Tang"). But where "Brother" fails is clear, and if there happens to be a sequel made, I hope the filmmakers decide to keep it real the next time out, and not let the white man (or is it poor direction?) keep them down.
Filmfodder Grade: D