In addition to the cheerfully unsustainable marketing-as-brainwash theme common to the most vertiginous comedies of the past year (Josie and the Pussycats, Pootie Tang, Zoolander), Undercover Brother takes on the bugbears of racial identity and cultural appropriation—meaning it strings together a whole bunch of black-people jokes and white-people jokes. The enemy is the Man, literally: a never-seen Caucasian called “the Man.” The Man orchestrates the decline of African American popcult (illustrated with a specious montage: Dennis Rodman, Urkel, no hip-hop) from his island fortress with the help of an effete henchman, Mr. Feather (Chris Kattan), so named for the gay-villain prop atwirl between his fingers. Introduced behind the wheel of a swerving Cadillac (he doesn’t spill a drop of his orange Big Gulp), Eddie Griffin’s titular mack-daddy secret agent joins forces with the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to thwart the Man’s evilest scheme yet—persuading a Colin Powell-ish general (Billy Dee Williams) to abandon his bid for the White House in favor of a fried chicken franchise.
Much of Undercover Brother plays as a funnier, if similarly addled, Bamboozled (director Malcolm D. Lee is Spike’s cousin). The comedy stems from anger, but there’s nothing here that Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, and umpteen others haven’t already configured into stand-up, and the adversarial stance is, if anything, part of the film’s overall cozy familiarity. (There’s an O.J. joke that kills, though, against all odds.) The amiable Griffin finds himself upstaged on all sides—mostly by Dave Chappelle’s ganja-powered Conspiracy Brother (who jabberingly unpacks the sinister connotations of words like “good,” decoding Good Will Hunting as I’m Hunting Niggers) but also by the affirmative-action white intern Lance (Neil Patrick Harris, revealing a hitherto untapped gift for absurdist timing—sipi-tai, Doogie Tang!) and Kattan’s mincing idiot, who strives throughout, with hysterically limited success, to suppress his inner Mary J. Blige.
Joe Maggio’s Virgil Bliss (First Run, opens June 14) follows an improbably naive lifelong fuckup (Clint Jordan), fresh out of stir, as he attempts to walk the straight and narrow. That he will fail miserably is a foregone conclusion; Maggio’s movie—reportedly shot for an astonishing $12,000, mostly around the formidably ugly Williamsburg waterfront—heightens the agony by erecting rickety signposts along the way. Jordan and Kirsten Russell, as the deadbeat-hooker love interest, bring the film to intermittent life, suggesting several more dimensions than the stale, futile scenario ever allows them.