Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House 2BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE 2

In the second season of TV's Arrested Development, struggling wannabe actor Tobias, separated from his wife and daughter, devises a brilliant strategy for insinuating himself back into their lives: He dons a wig and a frumpy housedress, speaks in a high, quasi-British falsetto, and greets his family as Mrs. Featherbottom, hired by "the agency" to serve as housekeeper and nanny. (Tobias, as the narration points out, is giddily - and ridiculously - enacting the plot to Mrs. Doubtfire.) His family is, naturally, unconvinced by Tobias' disguise, but they're happy to let him continue the ruse anyway - the house never looked cleaner. This subplot was a typically, fiendishly clever one for the series; by finally addressing the "Are you kidding?" element of this comic staple - where seemingly smart characters are fooled by a touch of latex and rouge - it subverted expectation by making our "hero" the butt of his own joke. Tobias' drag act made it impossible to ever again watch Mrs. Doubtfire - or even Tootsie or Some Like It Hot or Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - in quite the same way.

Yet, unfortunately, hardly anyone watches Arrested Development, and so we have Big Momma's House 2, wherein Martin Lawrence's FBI agent hopes to thwart some computer-related criminal activities by posing as the hefty matriarch of Lawrence's 2000 hit and nannying the children of one of the assumed criminals. The plot, of course, is just a thin excuse to watch Lawrence knock some sense into the dysfunctional family he works for, learn some Valuable Life Lessons in the process, and amuse audiences with the gut-busting sight of Big Momma - all four hundred pounds of her - shaking her groove thang and parodying Bo Derek's run on the beach in 10, and it's all too tiresome and formulaic and inconsequential to even get upset about; it's a disappointing movie only for those who consider it a movie.

If, like me, you have a low tolerance for the forced "hilarity" of Big Momma's House 2 yet find yourself at a screening of it anyway, at least know that a few peripheral characters will probably make you smile. Nia Long again plays Lawrence's significant other, now his wife, and although BMH2 seems to forget about her long before we in the audience do, Long's game, ebullient spirit is unmistakable. Kat Dennings, who played Catherine Keener's sarcastic-beyond-her-years daughter in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, lends the film her enjoyably snide, disbelieving scowl (making it all the more unlikely that Denning's eldest child would fall for Lawrence's prosthetics). Emily Procter, with her endearing North Carolina twang, is so pert and funny as Lawrence's new employer that when her character exited the house, leaving Big Momma in charge for the first time, it took all my will not to scream out, "Take me with you!"

And you might be surprised by how many laughs are generated by the toddler of the BMH2 clan, who is prone to eating Brill-o pads and sand, and who continually leaps from atop bunk beds and kitchen cabinets, landing on his face with a painful-sounding splat. (The tyke smiles, brushes himself off, and prepares for another go-round.) Although much is made over how stupid this goofy little kid is, he appeared, to me, to be the sanest (and most hysterical) one of the bunch, and certainly wise enough to see through Lawrence's nonsense.


Emma Thompson in Nanny McPheeNANNY MCPHEE

Another governess debuted this past weekend in Nanny McPhee, and it's safe to say that Emma Thompson's Scary Poppins is a more believable figure than Martin Lawrence's Momma. Astonishingly, however, she isn't a more enjoyable one. Surely, the Nanny McPhee script, which Thompson herself adapted from Christianna Brand's "Nurse Matilda" stories, has to read better than it plays - how could the woman who penned 1995's Sense & Sensibility and co-authored the Wit screenplay have forged something this obnoxious? Director Kirk Jones' Nanny McPhee is a braying, grating, all but unbearable family entertainment that mistakes hyperactivity for frivolity and sentimentality for sweetness, and it wastes a marvelous cast that includes Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald, Imelda Staunton, and the divine Angela Lansbury (who earns the film's one laugh with her aghast reading of "Insolence!"). Even Thompson, hidden beneath McPhee's grotesque facial accoutrements, is of little help; her dry, intentionally unvarying line readings and stern gaze make it seem like she'd rather be anywhere but in Nanny McPhee, and I, for one, completely empathized.


Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman in Underworld: EvolutionUNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION

That sensational British actor Derek Jacobi is another blighted party in Nanny McPhee - he plays one of Firth's funeral-parlor assistants - and he can also be found in Underworld: Evolution, the sequel to 2003's deadly serious why-can't-vampires-and-werewolves-just-be-friends? action yarn. Yet I'm hard-pressed to remember who, exactly, Jacobi plays in the film; five minutes after leaving the cineplex, nearly all of the movie's details vanished in a monochromatic, steel-blue-and-gray haze. Here's what I do recall: Len Wiseman stages the film's bloody attacks with more vigor, and even more elegance, than in his previous installment. Kate Beckinsale and Scott Shirtless ... excuse me, Scott Speedman ... glower - and make hot love - impressively. The film's nefarious vampire-werewolf hybrid sports enormous, insect-like wings that tear his victims to shreds, and make him a creepy doppelgänger for the mutant beastie in Jeepers Creepers. The CGI transformations still look less realistic than comparable effects in An American Werewolf in London 25 years ago. And although, as with the original Underworld, Evolution takes itself way too seriously, at least this follow-up moves - it's grim but it's not funereal. Oh, yeah. And Derek Jacobi is in the movie. I think.


Pierce Brosnan in The MatadorTHE MATADOR

Is any middle-aged male star currently having more fun on-screen than Pierce Brosnan? In writer/director Richard Shepard's twisty comedy The Matador, the former Bond plays Julian Noble, a once-formidable hired assassin experiencing a major nervous breakdown, and Brosnan is absolutely spectacular - he looks not just energized but relieved to be playing 007's alcoholic flip side, and his grungy, frazzled surliness is a burst of pure pleasure. (A scene of him walking to a hotel pool in cowboy boots, his hairy gut hanging over an unwise Speed-o, proves Brosnan to be an inspired, fearless comic actor.) As Julian forms an unlikely alliance with a meek sales rep (Greg Kinnear, ever likable), The Matador begins to make less and less sense - you never quite believe the logic-defying switches in character, especially as Kinnear begins to discover his inner bad-ass - but it's consistently, good-naturedly diverting, boasts several legitimate surprises (beware of falling trees), and Hope Davis, as is becoming her stock-in-trade, turns an underwritten role into a sharply etched one through sheer dint of eccentricity and talent. The best reason to see the film, though, is Brosnan, who is having such a good time playing such a crude, disheveled drunkard that he becomes completely endearing - it takes extraordinary skill to turn a character this repellent into someone many of us would love to be when we grow up.

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