The promotional poster for Big Momma’s House lays out the film’s central anxiety over identity in a way that’s hard to miss. It combines two images, both equal parts horrific and comedic: the first and most prominent is the face of star Martin Lawrence as FBI agent Malcolm Turner, staring out from his identity card, wide-eyed and bewildered. The second image offers one reason for his alarm: a large black woman is standing at the back of the frame jowls puffing, eyes glaring over that same identity card, which she holds forward in one hand to identify herself, while also brandishing a gun in her other hand. This would be Big Momma, that is, Martin in drag.
Like Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire before her, Big Momma has something to teach the man who plays her, and the film tracks this educational process as a comic battle between Malcolm’s two selves. As a man, he/she’s predictably resourceful and aggressive (despite or more likely because of his small size). But as a woman named Hattie Mae, he/she is wise and weathered, soulful and sweet, a generous soul who desires only to nurture those near and dear to her (and have a casual sex-romp on the side, but more on that later). For most of its running time, the film pretends that these two characters have nothing to do with one another, except that she is his creation, and he is a renowned wizard at undercover makeup. And so, Malcolm juggles, spending part of his time on assignment as himself and the other part wearing major prosthetics (including enough face putty to cover his little mustache and beard), big floppy-flowered dresses and granny pumps. The assignment is watching over Big Momma’s house (she’s called away suddenly) as a means to watch over her granddaughter Sherry (Nia Long), the maybe-or-maybe-not-estranged girlfriend of recent prison escapee and stone killer Lester (Terrence Howard, who, after rave reviews for his role in last year’s The Best Man, is here reduced to looking really mean). That Malcolm is playing this role in small-town Georgia only underlines the senselessness of the whole charade: Hattie Mae’s been a fixture in her neighborhood for decades, and no one notices how drastically she’s changed once Malcolm moves in.
Then again, making sense is hardly the point. The point is dread: dread of aging, of weakness, of appearing unmanly, of anything that smacks of women’s differences from men, their soft bodies, emotions, fluids, desires, and demands. This dread, while broadly cultural and often insightful, is framed as adroit humor. Martin Lawrence is nothing if not a genius at embodying masculine panic, and in particular, black masculine panic, in its myriad forms. Short, excitable, and perpetually striving to get ahead, beat the system, please his woman Lawrence is the perfect guy to play Malcolm, a master of disguises who’s not sure who he is without a mask on. He’s also the perfect guy to play Big Momma, who won’t take shit from anyone.
Martin himself is no stranger to playing assertive and frankly excessive women he did it for years on his popular sitcom, Martin, alternating between Gina’s (Tisha Campbell) outspoken girlfriend Shanaenae and her big-eared spastic loverman, named Martin. And surely the concept of a man in drag in search of himself is not news, here refitted by writers Darryl Quarles (Soldier Boyz) and Don Rhymer and director Raja Gosnell (Never Been Kissed, Home Alone 3) into a series of mostly unrelated scenes that showcase Lawrence’s comedic flexibility and charisma. His performance, in a word, is the film’s raison d’etre.
This performance is all about beating back the horror men feel at the specter of women’s nimiety. The full, scary, and stupefying embodiment of this horror appears after Malcolm has been established as a master of disguises, that is, ready as can be to face down his fear. The film opens as Malcolm must save his whitest-of-white-guy partner John (Paul Giamatti, forever fixed in my mind as “Pig Vomit” from Howard Stern’s movie) when they’re undercover to crack a pitbull fight ring, run by Chinese: Malcolm rips off his old-Chinese-man mask a la Tom Cruise, then kickboxes all the bad guys’ asses. Read: he’s a strong man. Soon after, his weakness is revealed, when, he’s nearly busted while installing hidden cameras in Hattie Mae’s house: she enters the house and he scurries to hide in the bathroom, where he then endures several appalling minutes of squirming while relieves herself (noisily) and prepares to bathe. It’s when she exposes her saggy-skinned mammoth posterior to him that Malcolm almost loses his lunch.
While the audience is invited to gag and fret along with Malcolm (about to be discovered) during this scene, once he dons his Big Momma drag, the movie’s sympathy-trajectory changes. He’s still in danger of being found out, but he’s also in danger of finding himself. And so, the comedy arises from the fact that, in addition to putting Malcolm in a dress and preposterous yellow wig, the role entails any number of unforeseen ramifications, apparently based on the standard expectations of the standard Big Old Woman. So, for instance, Hattie Mae must know how to cook, which means that Malcolm must throw grease-and-lard-and- butter-and-Crisco into a frypan and get it sizzling before he/she adds some nasty-looking chicken wings. Or, he/she must also know how to midwife for a local woman who arrives at the house already in labor: Big Momma rolls with it, calling for hot water, towels, oven gloves, tongs, and Crisco (again), and eventually delivering a baby in perfect condition. Or once more, she must be able to throw down at the church, leading the congregation in a lively rendition of “Oh Happy Day,” while the joyful and slightly shady preacher looks on approvingly.
This doubleness of Malcolm’s identity (and tripleness of Lawrence’s) becomes even more anxiety-making when it becomes clear that the scary Big Old Woman has sexual desires and options. Most cop-buddy films dally in homoeroticism and homophobia (usually at the same time: see the Lethal Weapon series or Lawrence’s Bad Boys, for that matter), but Big Momma’s House elaborates on this formula by making just about every sexual encounter potentially homoerotic, for both genders. And the Big Old Woman here takes the place of the gay man as the most frightening and unfathomable desiring subject.
As Malcolm soon learns, Hattie Mae can’t react to pretty girls the way he might when out of drag. When he/she first embraces Sherry, he comments on her fine ass, but she must flip it immediately, when Sherry wonders aloud if she’s heard her grandmother right: oh no!, Big Momma smiles, “I mean, I’d never forget that asthma!” Though Lawrence is certainly one of the more dexterous verbal comedians around, the film is less inclined to play verbal humor (as the above example suggests, it’s just too complicated) than it is to go for the straight-up physical variety: most of the laughs are delivered via Big Momma engaging in “masculine” activities where she bests the men who pride themselves on taking advantage of feebler folks. So, in a basketball session, Big Momma knocks the tar out of a few local boys who are picking on his/her grandson Trent (Jascha Washington), their victory displayed in slow motion to show the full glory of his/her blubbery robustness. Or, in a self-defense class taught by a wussy cop-wannabe who regularly beats up his elderly woman clients, Malcolm’s Big Momma whomps on him until it’s clear that he’ll never pick on an old lady again.
But of course, all this genderfuck is just warm-up for Malcolm/Big Momma’s dilemmas when it comes to sex. While dressed as Malcolm, he can practice martial arts moves like an equal (a boy) with Trent, but dressed as Big Momma, he’s the better listener and more insightful friend: the best parent he might be, then, lies somewhere between male and female (consider this the hokey lesson to be learned). Malcolm’s identity crisis comes to a head at the moments when he confronts his appetite for Sherry (dressed in her flimsy nightie, she hops into bed with her grandma one stormy night and Malcolm/Big Momma has to disguise his subsequent hard-on as a conveniently placed “flashlight”) and repulsion for Hattie Mae’s round-the-way beau Ben (a fellow who, when she opens the door, is already demonstrating his limber tongue). While dressed as Big Momma, Malcolm’s caught between genders and sexualities and specifically aged bodies: he’s emphatically a “he” when he threatens Ben to keep back. And yet he’s less securely a “he” when, momentarily losing control, he/she plants a sloppy open-mouthed kiss on Sherry. Her alarm eyes huge and jaw dropped, she steps back: “Big Momma!” brings him back to himself, or rather, to herself, or rather, to the realization that if he is smitten with this girl and her perfect nuclear familial set-up, he’ll have to grow up. In other words, he’ll have to reimagine what it is to be a man, aside from the guns and the masks and the identity cards.
Committing to a sexual activity which in turn declares an identity, as a performance and a way of living in a body becomes Malcolm’s most unsettling transition, the character development that Martin Lawrence the comic persona who must remain fluid and scaredy-cattish can’t really manage. The film deploys two endings: the first is the predictable climactic guys’ showdown, where Lester claws at a chunk of Malcolm’s Big Momma face, to the total confusion of everyone in town, all of whom happen to be gathered for a party at Big Momma’s house. The second, decidedly anticlimactic ending, takes place in the church, when, some time later, Malcolm returns from the big city in order to apologize to Sherry and make her his own. He’s called on to testify, and he makes some sappy remarks concerning true selves and true love, and really, it’s hard to believe a word of it. And all the while, that shady preacher looks on.