When you make your title a dare like this movie has, you’d better have something to show for it. Alas, Sam (D2: The Mighty Ducks) Weisman’s What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, doesn’t have much to show at all, concept-, laugh-, or even logic-wise. This despite the fact that it starts Martin Lawrence, one of the more gifted physical comedians on the planet, and despite the fact that it opens with a series of designer-credits shots of Boston under Craig Mac’s new single “Wooden Horse,” raising expectations for clever cultural collisions with its sampling of Sinatra’s “High Hopes.” But no. From here, the film heads straight downhill.
Based on Donald Westlake’s novel, Matthew Chapman’s screenplay launches straight into plot, such as it is, without much attention to characters. I never did figure out why any of its wide array of characters might know one another—and there are new ones showing up almost until the end of the film. Instead, characters sort of mill about in the same general vicinity, bumping into each other when the narrative lags, which is every four minutes or so.
First up is Kevin (Lawrence), who’s less a recognizable protagonist than a slapdash collection of familiar traits culled from movies you’ve seen before. So, he’s an upscale thief, with too much time on his hands and rumored skill. But you don’t see him steal stuff well (that happens off screen). You see him busted, enough times that you have to wonder about his career choice. On one of these failed missions, Kevin meets the man who will become his arch-nemesis, the skeezy billionaire Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito). Max is busted himself, for he’s at his fancy mansion illicitly with his bounteous lover, a Miss September (Sascha Kopf). There’s a detail here about Max having just declared bankruptcy to avoid paying something or other, which is why he can’t be in his own house, but it only matters because for a minute, both men—when they spot one another—are in trouble.
But this situation only lasts a minute. The cops come, believe the white man in the silk robe, and haul the black man in the burgling suit off to their waiting cruiser. But not before Max decides to grind up Kevin’s professional pride just a bit more than necessary, and take his big gold ring, a present from Kevin’s girlfriend, the long-suffering Amber (Carmen Ejogo, last seen playing Coretta Scott King in HBO’s Boycott). Her father was wealthy, I think, and she misses her father, perhaps, and she has given Kevin the ring after one night together, which suggests that Kevin is just a bit awesome. Aside from giving Kevin this ring, Amber serves no function that I can see. She says she’s an anthropology graduate who moved to Boston to work for a now defunct company called neanderthal.com (I take it this is the film’s attempt to be topical). After their fabulous night together, Kevin gets her work as a barmaid at some joint he frequents, so all his buddies can check her out and compliment him.
Oh yes, the ring. For unknown reasons, Max and Kevin make this the center of what Amber describes as a “juvenile dick measuring contest” (she may have nothing much to do here, but she pays attention), and whoever possesses the ring last, wins. Because each is used to getting his own way, neither is willing to compromise—the result is a series of abusive encounters that lead not to a climax but an end that seems a long time coming.
Kevin is aided and abetted by several sidekicks, notably his burgling mentor Uncle Jack (Bernie Mac) and burgling buddy Berger (John Leguizamo). Max also has associates, including his wife (Nora Dunn) and a series of minions—his personal psychic Gloria (Glenne Headley), zealous head of security Earl (Larry Miller), and long-suffering lawyer Walter (Richard Schiff). Apparently, Max also keeps several congressmen paid off so that he can maintain his monopolies. Added to this pile-up of cardboard characters are Berger’s wife (Ana Gasteyer), a husband and wife break-in team Lenny Clarke and Siobhan Fallon), and a gay detective (William Fichtner) who shows up periodically for no apparent reason, except to sniff, show off his (farting) poodles, and make sexual insinuations. Come to think of it, everyone on the preceding list of supporting players is pretty much consigned to walk on and off screen as if passing through someone else’s movie.
The primary players—Kevin and Max—might as well be passing through someone else’s movie. They’re doing that non-mating mating dance that buddy characters tend to do, with too much spastic energy and not nearly enough inspiration: I found myself feeling wistful for Lawrence’s last fart-joke outing, Big Momma’s House. Lawrence, we know, can be quite raucously seductive when he’s playing one his many alter egos and jumping out and all around the box. But here he’s confined by formula. This isn’t so say that the comedy I think there’s a vague gesture toward class analysis buried here: even though Max and Kevin appear to be cultural opposites, both are consummate manipulators, thieves and rapscallions who profit from the greed of others. How American. And how unoriginal. By the time they walk out of a courtroom, Max triumphant and Kevin playing jive-talking-lawyer, the movie has long since worn out its welcome. No matter how you dress up that juvenile contest plot, it’s the same old same old.