Somewhere in the premise of John Whitesell’s Malibu’s Most Wanted—rich, pampered white kid adopts black ghetto persona as a way of coping with feelings of alienation—is a potentially intriguing, deeply ironic movie about race and identity in America. Or maybe not: The prickly complexity of such a setup is enough to discourage even the most foolhardy filmmakers, as James Toback’s lily-livered 1999 mess Black and White painfully proved.
Most Wanted sidesteps similar immolation by playing it strictly for laughs. Extrapolating on a character from his WB sketch comedy series The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, dough-pussed Kennedy plays Brad “B-Rad” Gluckman, a spoiled Malibu youth who harbors delusions of street credibility and dreams of making it big as a rapper. His neglectful father (Ryan O’Neal), who’s running for governor, puts the kibosh on Brad’s ambitions and embarrassing non-p.c. presence by hiring two prissy, over-trained actors (Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson) to impersonate thugs, kidnap the lad, and give him a taste of life in the mean streets of Compton. When he discovers their ploy, Brad plays along and inadvertently ingratiates himself with a genuine gangster (Damien Dante Wayans) and the kidnappers’ pulchritudinous, reluctant accomplice (Regina Hall).
Most Wanted isn’t aiming for social commentary, but it isn’t too difficult to enjoy its good-natured humor. Kennedy plays the benign, likably deluded Brad with a languid conviction that evokes an underachieving Jerry Lewis. Diggs and Anderson are equally winning, and clearly relish the opportunity to turn (and re-turn) the tables on black stereotypes. Even O’Neal seems less emotionally constipated than usual.
Despite all the fun, however, the thorny questions raised by Brad’s facade linger, and the absence of African Americans from the film’s creative team is troubling. The message from young Gluckman (and presumably the screenwriters) is that his act is no act; it’s the way he really is. But no attention is paid to the means of Brad’s ready-to-wear identity: The wealth, power, and privilege that’ll allow him to effortlessly trade it in for a new one down the line are given a free pass.
For all its blind spots, at least Whitesell’s film addresses a real-world phenomenon. James Foley’s rote caper flick Confidence lazily assembles a batch of movie stars, turns them loose on a script that reflects nothing so much as a committee interpretation of every other caper flick, and lets them bounce off each other like so many overpaid billiard balls.
Essentially a low-rent Ocean’s 11 or a Nine Queens without heart, the film—about a grifter (Ed Burns) scamming a crime boss (Dustin Hoffman)—cynically accumulates plot twists while showing little regard for suspense or audience sophistication. Only Paul Giamatti and Rachel Weisz come out ahead—Giamatti because he seems unaware that it’s all been done before, and Weisz because she could make a sewage-treatment plant seem classy. Come to think of it, that analogy isn’t too far off the mark here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2003