The high concept of My Baby’s Daddy has three men and three babies trading reaction shots. That they are hiphop-flavored homeboys vaguely updates their Mr. Mom-ish experiences: rather than change diapers, shop for formula, and attend “Mommy and Me” classes in the suburbs, they’re doing it in the city — nominally Philadelphia, though the film is mostly shot in Toronto.
The situation is laid out in an animated opening sequence, narrated by aspiring boxer/grocery clerk G (Anthony Anderson). Each of his friends has reductively identifying traits. Lonnie (Eddie Griffin) is the group’s designated Urkel: with big glasses, big teeth, nerdy costumes and affect, he wants to be an inventor and lusts after skanky Rolanda (Paula Jai Parker) (“All she loved was his money,” sighs in-the-know G). Her five-year-old, Lil’ Tupac (Bobb’e Jacqez Thompson), sells hot watches out of his jacket and abuses Lonnie for being a wuss.
Self-styled stud Dominic (Michael Imperioli) is the designated hiphopped-out white boy; imagining, perhaps, that he’s the next Lyor Cohen, Dom has signed his first act, the Brotha Stylz (Jason and Randy Sklar, of MTV’s Apt. 2-F). He calls them the “future of hiphop, right here,” at which point, they dump him for a Suge Knight facsimile named Drive By (Tiny Lister), who glowers and looms and — wait for it — serves milk and cookies at the contract signing.
Last but not least, G is an aspiring boxer, currently working at a grocery store for Cha Ching (Denis Akiyama). As if to spite his boss, G is dating Ca Ching’s daughter, Xi Xi (Bai Ling) — she sneaks out to see him, wearing pigtails to convince dad she’s still an “innocent.” What a surprise, when the guys all have sex at approximately the same moment, and Rolanda, Dom’s one-night-stand Nia (Joanna Bacalso), and Xi Xi all get pregnant at the same time.
This means a change in “lifestyle,” but not too much. The three men live, Old School-style, in a house owned by Lonnie’s Uncle Virgil (John Amos, currently starring with Anderson in All About the Andersons), who assigns chores and lectures them on what it means to be “a man.” They insist they can put in the requisite time to be good fathers, while also pursuing their vaguely outlined dreams and, most importantly, their well-attended parties.
The maturation process is painful, as the new parents reveal ignorance and the film recycles any number of old bits: Lonnie and Rolanda’s pregnancy class features women farting so he can make faces; after she has the child, Rolanda feeds it soda in a bottle; Lonnie leads his fellows in a feeding-and-burping (and spit-up) lesson; the men rock the babies to sleep in G’s acrobatic lowrider; G’s kid, Bruce Leroy, pees in his face; and, by way of the requisite shape-up-or-else lesson, the daddies leave the babies unattended while they party downstairs, then profess shock and contrition when the kids crawl down the laundry chute. Throughout, “appropriate” audience response is cued by trite soundtrack choices: the crosscut birthing scenes by Salt ‘N Pepa’s “Push it,” solemn lessons learned by Scarface’s “On My Block,” and G’s short-lived effort to go jogging by “Gonna Fly Now.” Even less imaginatively, G has a hallucination concerning “Asian” girls who coo “Me So Horny.”
Working from a multi-authored screenplay (credited to Griffin, Damon Daniels, Brent Goldberg, and David Wagner), Philadelphia’s own Cheryl Dunye struggles to make comedy out of assorted clichés and fart jokes. With this wide-release film, she’s come a long way from the Dunyementary, the inventive, mostly-autobiographical short video format that made her famous in film fest circuits. But she’s also apparently caught up in a situation resembling that of once-independent filmmaker Troy Beyer, whose Love Don’t Cost a Thing (2003) is similarly a remake of a white genre picture supposedly enlivened by inserting black characters and a hiphop-heavy soundtrack.
It’s hardly news that formulaic comedy — the sort relying on, say, fart jokes and race stereotypes — grants newish filmmakers and actors entrance into “Hollywood”: similar to slasher films, they’re by-the-numbers and relatively inexpensive to make, but unlike slashers, they tend to employ medium-name performers (often culled from tv, music, or standup) in order to guarantee some box office, no matter how meager (that My Baby’s Daddy was not screened for critics suggests Miramax had a sense of just how meager this one might be).
Also like Love Don’t Cost a Thing, My Baby’s Daddy reveals occasional slivers of innovation, as if resisting its own fate as a studio-managed muddle: Dom comes to terms with Nia’s lesbian relationship with her midwife, Venus (Naomi Gaskin), and Lonnie’s replacement for Rolanda, a “nice” single mother he meets at class (Marsha Thompson, survivor of Haunted Mansion), righteously resists him when he acts the fool.
But for the most part, the movie is overwhelmed by an odd mix of formula, stereotypes, and inconsistency. G learns that his Ca Ching is a former gangster with the triads (he smokes reefer and pours out a little from his 40); and Lonnie goes through a corny and tedious “playa” phase before he realizes he just has to “be himself” to win the new girlfriend’s heart. If Dom’s pose as hiphop impresario is played out, so too are the film’s numerous jokes about gangstas (G’s cousin, No Good [Method Man], just released from prison, can’t help himself, and steals baby supplies), and Chinese names (Ca Ching, Ding-a-Ling, Sing-Sing) and pronunciations. On hearing G’s protracted penitent speech, Bai Ling is reduced to asserting, “You had me at ‘Herro.'” What was anyone thinking?
Still, as uneven and annoying as they can be, it’s unlikely that Love Don’t Cost a Thing or My Baby’s Daddy will mark the end of anyone’s career. (Dunye, for one, is reportedly signed to direct a hiphop film set in NYC.) But such trial-by-fire experiences hardly seem useful for actors, writers, or crewmembers. Surely there are better ways to demonstrate that a director can handle a tight schedule, last-minute script changes, and a large crew. If a filmmaker is signed to work on the basis of previous, independently produced work, it seems logical that this kind of work — original and challenging– be encouraged rather than buried beneath industry ennui.