“I ain’t be got no weapon! Why you be gotta pull a knife on me?” So exclaims a desperate black actor (Bobby McGee) in an audition before an indifferent, white casting committee in Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. In the fifteen years since that production, we’ve seen I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Scary Movies, and the odd House Party, but the perfect Hollywood crossover comedy has remained elusive. Fortunately, urban satire is back — and bad — in the form of Undercover Brother. If this film’s hero were indeed nothing but a sandwich, you’d taste very little ham, but you’d go home with a bellyful of wry.
The beauty of this smart, sharp comedy lies in its dexterity, as it raises one fist in a friendly Black Power salute and firmly gooses the whole audience with the other. Based on the animated Internet series by John Ridley — devote a little office time to UrbanEntertainment.com — the script, cowritten with Michael McCullers (the Austin Powers sequels), tickles and kicks with aplomb. All the self-aware street humor neglected in the brutal Shaft remake landed right here, and the result is a rousing crowd-pleaser that knows a little hot sauce helps the medicine go down.
To quote from the cartoon source, when Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) puts on his Oreo alter ego, Anton Jackson, “he’s harmless enough for white people to trust him.” This is handy when a soulful, secret solidarity known as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. taps the freelance, Afro-‘n’-polyester caricature to infiltrate the tyrannical organization run by a wicked enigma known as the Man (no, not Hollywood; a different tyrannical organization). Via a mind-altering drug cooked into fried chicken pushed by the roundly respected — but diabolically mesmerized — General Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams, mega-brilliant), The Man and his right-hand toady, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan, not mega-brilliant), aim to control society and take over the world (or at least the quintessentially soulful Vancouver locations). This isn’t half as funny as it sounds — it’s twice as funny.
Much of the movie’s groove comes from its well-drawn characters, who don’t toe the line of stereotype but rather vault over it. Under the command of the Chief (Chi McBride of Boston Public), Undercover Brother is assisted by techno-goob Smart Brother (Gary Anthony Williams, ideal) and radical Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle, ditto), the latter proclaiming, “Jesus Christ was a black man! Babe Ruth was a black man! Madonna … slept with black men!” There’s enjoyment to be had, but edifying lessons as well.
One of the themes the movie is clever enough to take seriously enough to deliver lightly is the hero’s conquest of the white woman versus reckoning with the sister. The caricatures don’t let up here, either, as the Man’s henchwoman Penelope “White She-Devil” Snow (Denise Richards, hot) attempts to trap Undercover Brother in a deliciously awkward karaoke of “Ebony and Ivory,” plying him with honky mayonnaise and her own special condiments. When she squares off against agent Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis, hotter), the funk flies. The girls’ celebrated cat fight/shower scene is amusing, but there’s something in the way Sistah glowers when Snow calls her “Tan-jah” that’s subtly hilarious, or “funny because it’s true,” as the saying goes.
The movie is not without its pop-culture redundancies — chill on the Macy Gray already, and are there any branches of the outback Walbiri tribe who haven’t had enough of “Play That Funky Music (White Boy)”? — but under the helm of director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man), the movie sustains its momentum with ease. What could have been tedious — ha-ha, Undercover Brother is black and acts black, get it? — is somehow made fresh. It’s even apparent in the rest of the soundtrack, which blends classic ’70s funksters with the likes of Snoop Dogg to make gangsta rap seem halfway palatable to the large demographic who are sick of having their car windows rattled. Topping it off, your ticket money is going to get you standout supporting performances from both James Brown (exceptional as himself) and Doogie Howser … er, Neil Patrick Harris (as the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D.’s white intern — scourge of Affirmative Action). The flick’s got a freakish formula for funk.
Not only is Undercover Brother the funniest spy-thriller since The Nude Bomb (oh, behave), it feels like the proper sequel to The Blues Brothers, crossing all kinds of lines between cartoonish buffoonery and genuine compassion for its characters. It’s a shame that zany comedies don’t tend to win awards, because producer Brian Grazer (with producers Damon Lee and Michael Jenkinson) has delivered a more gratifying film than his fat Oscar-hog last year, and the mind under this Brother’s Afro is truly a beautiful one.