Moving On Up
Friday was the kind of film that surprised most everyone when it was a hit, even the folks who made it. Simply plotted and closely focused on the adventures of two South Central homeboys, the film boosted several rising stars into stratospheric dimensions, including director F. Gary Gray (a former music video director who then went on to make Set It Off and The Negotiator) and bendy-bodied comedian Chris Tucker, as the impeccably named Smokey.
Friday worked in part because its ambitions were limited, as was its budget: Smokey and Craig (played by producer/co-writer Ice Cube) spent their day seeking not-quite-legal recreation as well as respite from randy female neighbors, Craig’s clueless dog-catcher dad Willy (John Witherspoon), and a big old bully named Debo (Tiny Lister). So what if some of the adventures were only half-funny or based in stereotypes and doo-doo jokes? The players were charismatic and the comedy was premised on actual appreciation (rather than disdain) for ‘hood and head life.
The film did well in theaters, then exploded on video, and, of course, the soundtrack still sells well. All of which means that a follow-up was inevitable.
Arriving in theaters five years later, Next Friday is the kind of sequel that will elicit much grumping from critics and other people who purport know what’s good for you. The problems with the film are obvious like all sequels, it’s designed to make money. It’s also missing the original’s key elements, for instance, novelty, low expectations, and crucially, Smokey (who is, we hear in a brief voice-over from Craig, in “rehab”). The intentional changes appear to be attempts at expansion: where the first film took place on one block and involved bicycles, the second moves to the suburbs and includes some very nice rides. And where the first had two protagonists, the second according to director Steve Carr (also a video director, having made Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” and “Can I Get A”) “has ten fully developed characters.” Some of these are returning (Craig, Debo, and Craig’s father Willy) and some newly invented, like Craig’s cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps, a stand-up comedian in his feature film debut, clearly hoping to emulate Tucker’s wild success) and uncle Elroy (Don Curry), none seeming particularly well “developed.”
But “development” is a vexed issue here. The film is built to sell, not expand ideas, with a decent “inspired by” soundtrack cd featuring music by Terence Blanchard and songs by Ice Cube, Wyclef, Aaliyah, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Its humor is broad and easy, with fucked up situations (physical comedy initiated by inept tortures and large guns waving), curious cultural critiques (the most prominent sign of Elroy’s new leisure-classness is his SM gear), and overt references to The Jeffersons, the sitcom that made the black middle class a visible threat to white status quo. You might see development in the new film’s general boldness: its swipes at propriety are just as likely to target ‘burban complacency as all that arrogant-seeming ‘hood etiquette viewers will recognize from the movies if not experience.
Mostly, though, Next Friday wants to mess with you. The good news is that its story centers on Craig. True, this guy looks real thin on paper: Craig eats cereal, tries to avoid his dad’s haranguing, and generally hangs around (actually, not so unlike the character Seinfeld translated into much money and fame). But Craig’s appeal is not in what he does, but in who he is, that is, the immensely charismatic Ice Cube: he only need show up to make any scene seem fine. In large part this is a function of his reputation. At only 31 years old, the former O’Shea Jackson and ex-NWA member has become something of a hiphop icon, with solo albums (AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, The Predator, Lethal Injection), production and writing credits, and multiple collabos under his belt. He’s also got an impressive movie resume, turning in impressive performances in John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood and Higher Learning, as well as The Glass Shield, Trespass, and Anaconda, and made a fine directorial debut with Players Club (1998).
As an actor, Cube’s not hard like, say, Ice T, or showy like Master P. And he’s never silly or preening like Will Smith. No. Cube has what you might call a slow affect. He smiles kind of crafty, hardly ever seems alarmed. He routinely looks sensible amid chaos. (And why not? He’s seen everything.) When someone acts out near him, Cube turns his head just so, more like he’s insinuating a double take than actually delivering one. That he still passes as a sneakers-and-sports-jersey-wearing hood kid speaks to his decent genes and/or a healthy lifestyle. But it also underlines his ability to keep his finger on various cultural pulses: he pays attention to what’s interesting his audience players and gunplay, sexism and meanness and uses his tremendous popularity to educate as he entertains. He makes music with the Westside Connection, runs Lynch Mob Records with his wife Kimberly. His interviews tend to be thoughtful and informative. Even if you know nothing about gangsta rap or hiphop culture, you can respect Ice Cube.
In Next Friday, he reprises Craig’s combination of naivete, street smarts, and good intentions, in a plot set-up that’s straight out of old Fresh Prince, that is, ghetto boy out of water. The deal is this: Debo escapes from prison and threatens revenge, so Willy sends young Craig to stay out in the burbs with erstwhile lottery-winners Elroy and Day-Day. The joke, of course, is that Willy’s assumption that wealthy folks have a corner on safety and respectability, is hopelessly uninformed. And it’s up to the ever-resilient Craig to come to the aid of his hapless relatives: when he learns that they have mismanaged their winnings to the point that the house is about to be repossessed, he connives to secure some quick cash.
Craig’s only just been deposited on his relatives’ doorstep, when he sees Day-Day’s ex-girlfriend D’Wana (Tamala Jones), pregnant and pissed off, standing in the driveway and digging her key into Day-Day’s shiny new car. Amazed at her wrath and nerve (as well as her partner, another angry black woman played by Lady of Rage), Craig also commiserates with his cuz, until suddenly, his attention is captured by a fine Latina neighbor, Karla (Lisa Rodriguez). Though he’s warned that in the burbs, as elsewhere, races don’t mix, Craig beelines for Miss Thang, pretending to ignore the sure trouble posed by her three brothers, Joker (Jacob Vargas, sending up the Latino “thug” he’s been stuck playing since Allison Anders’ excellent La Vida Loca, even though he showed promising range in that film and in the same director’s Gas Food Lodging), Little Joker, and Baby Joker.
It’s only a matter of time before hijinks commence: Willy falls in dog shit and eats a fart-inducing burrito, Elroy’s bosomy girlfriend Sugar greets Craig by sliding her tongue along his neck, D’Wana stalks Day-Day, Day-Day and his boy Roach (Justin Pierce), a fellow worker and doper at the local CD store (owned by a pink Cadillac-driving mack-daddy played with jheri-curled vivacity by Clifton Powell). Even though the original film “crossed over” big time, you get the feeling that Fine Line wanted insurance for the sequel, hence the white boy doper for comic and other reliefs.
This concern with crossing over is important in considering how and why Next Friday was made. No doubt, it isn’t and was never intended to be a great or even a very good movie. But its all-rightness probably won’t afford it the same scale of success won by the equally all-right Austin Powers 2 or Kingpin (which was essentially the Farrelly brothers’ sequel to their Dumb and Dumber). The differences between these cases have to do with target audiences and, importantly, critical responses. Even when critics sniffed about Something About Mary‘s retarded jokes (as well as its jokes about and at the expense of handicapped people) or AP2‘s fatman, midget, and sloppy poop jokes, a lot of them applauded the films’ rollicking good natures, looking the other way on some “issues” and just giving up on others, in ways that likely won’t be repeated for Next Friday.
This isn’t to compare the qualities of these films: surely there are differences in writing, budgeting, and acting among them. It is to note, however, that definitions of humor are perpetually troubled and specifically classed and raced no matter how crossed over the money.