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Review: 'Brother' too skit-tish for big laughs

Good ideas, but little follow-through

By Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Malcolm D. Lee's "Undercover Brother" is a spy movie-blaxploitation picture spoof that repeats itself so often, and hits its targets so erratically, you'd swear it was adapted from a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

But it's actually based on a popular Internet cartoon series. This is the first piece of Net entertainment to be so honored, a breakthrough that means copycat producers will now be able to drop their plans of revamping lax TV fodder in favor of revamping one-joke Web fodder.

Though "Undercover Brother" is another salvo in our dumbing-down revolution, it contains a few instances of biting cross-cultural mockery, and enough groovy outfits to choke a clotheshorse.

Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a sort of retro-chic Robin Hood with a huge Afro, matching sideburns, bad threads, and a gold Cadillac convertible. He has a wide range of gadgets at his disposal, including retractable platform shoes that can lift him 20 feet off the ground. (Think Inspector Gadget meets Superfly.)

He's recruited by an organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to help fight a group run by The Man, an evil overlord who has it out for African-American culture.

Watching out for The Man

RESOURCES Review: 'Undercover Brother' 



The TV skit vibe is established quickly, as most of the inventive material is crammed into the opening minutes -- it's no accident that character introductions in this sort of thing are usually the best part -- then everything moves at a lightning clip while only occasionally generating a decent laugh.

Chris Kattan plays Mr. Feather, second in command to The Man (who only appears in the shadows, on a large video screen). Feather and his cohorts have devised a plan to turn black people into spiritual Caucasians by doping fried chicken with a drug that convinces them to sing karaoke, wear khakis, eat mayonnaise, and listen to Lawrence Welk records. (Sensitive types be warned: The humor is consistently non-P.C., but manages to mock the misconceptions of both blacks and whites.)

The Man's underhanded goal is quite humorously accomplished by controlling the mind of General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams), a famous African-American military figure who's about to hold a press conference announcing his run for the Presidency. (A vapid white news anchor thinks he could actually win, because "he's so well-spoken.") At the press conference, people are appalled when Boutwell announces that he's opening a chain of fried chicken restaurants. Then he unwittingly becomes the Col. Sanders of brainwashing.

Back at the lab, Undercover Brother and his cohorts try to figure out how to stop this unspeakable evil from spreading. The other operatives at B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. include Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle), Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis), The Chief (Chi McBride), Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams), and Lance (Neil Patrick Harris), a very white intern. Sistah Girl, of course, eventually falls for Undercover Brother.

Thrown for a loop

There's something to be said for the introduction of Conspiracy Brother. But once you laugh at the idea that Chappelle (who's hilarious when given the chance, and deserves to carry a big film on his own) will continually spew bizarre anti-white conspiracy theories, the fun is over.

But the movie sure isn't. Each actor gets a defining character trait and repeats it on a loop, so there's no surprise to any of the one-liners, even the ones that score a few points.

There's no attempt at all to make this move like a real motion picture, and that's not a ridiculous thing to expect simply because it's silly. Lee is far more concerned with production design and goofy costumes. Any legitimate satirical promise -- and there appears to be quite a bit, at first -- soon gives way to a hard-charging volley of visual and verbal gags that play like yet another mediocre child of "Airplane."

Oddly, Undercover Brother's flashy, 70's-style blackness, easily the most engaging thing about the picture, is quickly discarded in favor of watching him act like a square white dude. While infiltrating a multinational conglomerate, he's set upon by "the black man's Kryptonite," i.e. Penelope Snow (Denise Richards), a really hot, oversexed white woman trained by The Man.

From there on out, it's boring khakis, horn-rimmed glasses, and penny loafers for Undercover Brother, and the bold jolt of the humor dissipates.

That's too bad. Systematically lowered audience expectations have made sizeable hits out of less than this, but it would be nice if the filmmakers actually knew why people are watching in the first place.

The only offensive thing about "Undercover Brother" is the intentionally iffy racial humor. It's all in fun, though. Kattan's absurdly Hollywood-ized death scene is good for a belly laugh, by the way, but you have to sit through the whole thing in order to see it.


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