Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows) has a big dick. Or at least, this seems to be the primary idea behind this latest unfunny comedy from SNL Studios and producer Lorne Michaels. Leon’s prominent member apparently drives women wild with desire and men especially the wealthy white ones who have young trophy wives who look like they’ve just stepped out of Beverly Hills, 90210 wild with jealousy. (Unless those men are driven wild with desire as well, a possibility nearly-exposed during one of the film’s many less-than-subtle moments.) Caught somewhere between these responses, Leon Phelps, the un-smoothest of love machines, kind of ambles along, quaint and sweet-natured and never more than remotely interesting.
Did I say “remotely interesting”? Let me rephrase. As an example of someone’s recycled concept of black male sexuality circa 1970s, Leon Phelps is annoying and reductive. And it’s not that I don’t get that he’s a joke. It’s that that premise in itself is annoying, first, because Leon is just never very funny, and second, what little bit of humor might exist (mainly in his costumes: matching plaid bellbottom pants and jacket with extra-wide lapels, and that cute ‘fro) is never very sharp or satirical. Leon is too accommodating and easily distracted by his you-know-what to remind anyone of the more famous emblems of the ‘70s, fuck-the-man, streetwise heroes like Shaft and Superfly. So, Leon is left with the Huggy Bears as his most obvious satirical target, which is too bad, because when he was stealing scenes on Starsky and Hutch, Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas) was already his own best joke (as Keenen Ivory Wayans knew when he had him wear goldfish-bowl platform shoes in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka). Meadows devised Leon for those endless Saturday Night Live four-minute skits back in 1997 (according to SNL Studios’ press materials, Leon’s appearance with guest host Monica Lewinsky last year “drew national attention,” whatever that means), and co-wrote the film script with Dennis McNicholas and Andrew Steele. He says that he modeled the character after guys he used to see when he was working in a Detroit liquor store, guys whose clothes always matched no matter how cheap and cheesy they were. And yes, Leon’s clothes do match.
But the joke on the “era” say, on its many excesses and peculiar trends and tastes that he might have embodied tends to be lost in the film’s shuffle of skits (Leon and company can’t sustain a scene longer than a couple of minutes). The Ladies Man is also tediously preoccupied with white men’s fear of black men’s sexual prowess. This is an old, easy-joke theme, but the film is like a dog with a bone so to speak. The Ladies Man spends an inordinate amount of time following the activities of the anxious (mostly) white men whose (mostly) white wives and girlfriends have had affairs with local black stud Leon (there is, to be fair, one black man in one or two of the gang-of-angry-cuckolds shots). Chief among these men are Lance DeLune (Will Ferrell), married, unhappily it appears, to Honey (ex-90210 bitchy babe Tiffani-Amber Thiessen… oh, sorry, she’s now going by Tiffani Thiessen) and Barney (Lee Evans). Leon’s exploits are so very legendary and the hearts he’s left behind are so very wounded, that the men have formed a support group whose meetings are announced on their website. At the time you become privy to the action, the group is deciding to take action: they gather up their golf clubs and rolling pins and 9mm handguns and pursue Leon with the intention of killing him.
Around the same time, it so happens (and if I’m making this sound like there’s a plot at work here, I certainly don’t mean to), Leon has been fired from his job as host for a Chicago radio talk show, “The Ladies Man.” His loyal producer, Julie (Karyn Parsons, last seen doing a decent Valley Girl imitation as Hilary on Fresh Prince of Bel Air) quits her job in protest, and together they traipse about the local environs looking for work. A sequence of overkill ridiculous job interviews and auditions ensues: watch the middle-aged station manager squirm when he hears Lester’s ribald sexual advice demo-tape; watch Lester squirm when he interviews a nun who wants to tell stories about her upcoming missionary position. Each of these mini-scenes could pass for one of those overlong SNL skits.
As you must know, given the fact that Parsons has second billing, Julie and Leon eventually realize their true love for one another, despite the fact that she seems a fairly sensible and sensitive woman with a rudimentary helping of self-esteem. In addition, after the (mostly) white men track Leon down and pull out their weapons, they get a glimpse of his penis lit by a heavenly glow below the frameline and their jaws drop and their eyes go wide. It’s clear now that they have found their arch-nemesis, the overwhelming threat to their (mostly) white masculine privilege and related assumptions about property and potency. They circle round their man, and, save for that black guy somewhere in the group, they’re looking a little too much like a mob. And then, for a brief instant, the worm almost turns. When Lance decides that the most appropriate revenge is for him to Greco-Roman wrestle this presumptuous Ladies Man to the ground, the film is at a crossroads. Lance oils his chest and hairy arms in anticipation: will the truth come out? At this point, it’s do or die: the movie might hold true to its conviction or maybe just its most likely punchline but it cannot. Instead, Leon proves to be the sagacious black advisor who shows up in just a few too many movies where white folks are in need of goals and guidance. Leon performs as he must: he offers the guys his most heartfelt counsel on how to treat their ladies right. And all’s well with the world.
Except for one thing. The Ladies Man is set up as something of a fable, with Lester, a twinkly-eyed narrator, who, appropriately, is the bartender at the local watering hole where Leon has picked up many women over the years. Wise and observant and good at wiping glasses as such a character must be, Lester is also played by Billy Dee Williams. Now there’s a puzzlement. Certainly, it’s not unusual for older actors to play sage second fiddle or confidant to younger actors (Jimmy Caan, for example, has developed a second and very cagey back-from-the-dead career doing just that). But jeez. Back in the day Billy Dee Williams had it all over those guys that Leon aspires to be. It’s just not right that he’s reduced to standing around and nodding his head while Leon runs all his crude, rude, edgeless gooniness, from engaging in a pigs-feet eating contest to grousing about his latest failed pick-up line. Poor Billy Dee. It’s just not right.