Audiences seem to love watching certain performers playing against type. While such performances may be clichéd or even possibly offensive to those who fall into such groups, it's apparent that viewers enjoy the gentile giant (such as Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile"), feisty and cantankerous senior citizens (including the late Ruth Gordon and Burgess Meredith in various roles), and the larger than life, nasty meanness of short people.
Of that latter group, none has played so many such parts with so much vigor or success as Danny DeVito. From Louie De Palma in TV's "Taxi" to Sam Stone in "Ruthless People" and Owen in "Throw Momma From the Train," the diminutive star has become known for embodying such temperamental and ruthless characters even if they only make up a minority of all the parts he's played over the years.
He now adds another such character to his resume in "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" A lightweight and sporadically amusing comedy that has far more bark than bite, the film benefits from DeVito's presence and performance - even if he's retreading familiar material - and doesn't offer much more beyond headliner Martin Lawrence's standard mugging and other physical and verbal humor.
The story of a professional thief who becomes irked when his latest victim - a ruthless, amoral billionaire played by DeVito - robs him of a ring as he's being carted off by the police, the picture has loads of potential. Yet, like many other such films that seem like they'll be a blast to watch, this one squanders its comic possibilities.
As written by screenwriter Matthew Chapman ("Color of Night," "Consenting Adults") -- who's adapted Donald E. Westlake's 1996 novel of the same name - and directed by Sam Weisman ("The Out-Of-Towners," "George of the Jungle"), the film feels uneven and flat right from the get-go, with a banal opening titles sequence leading to the early scenes where we're supposed to be surprised by the true colors revelation regarding Lawrence's character.
While the bland and predictable surprise isn't entirely the picture's fault since the marketing department let that cat out of the bag long ago in the trailers and TV commercials, that moment and most of the others feels more than a bit forced and certainly not as effective as they could and should have been. Beyond running gags that don't work very well (such as Lawrence's character rapidly blinking whenever lying), various set pieces feel like standalone bits that were thrown into the picture without concern over how they would fit in or play.
That includes a sequence where DeVito's character yells insults back to Lawrence's over the phone during a Congressional hearing, with various Senators thinking he's talking to them (all while an interpreter makes obscene gestures while translating related words into sign language). It's a scene that could have worked if handled just right, but it's bungled throughout, no doubt also hurt by the awful and awkward editing that's present throughout the film.
All sorts of nonsensical developments also occur, even for a comedy. Things happen too fast - such as a young woman hopping into bed with Lawrence's character, giving him her father's lucky ring and not seeming concerned that he's a professional thief. If she were constructed as a dimwitted dope, that would make sense. Yet, since she's portrayed as an otherwise levelheaded young woman, all of that feels too contrived and forced, which pretty much holds true for the rest of the film as well.
Of course, the filmmakers are seemingly more concerned with the tit for tat material and related moments between Lawrence and DeVito's characters - which is what presumably fueled Westlake's novel - but all of that's slipshod as well here. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a pit of rattlesnakes left out on a chilly spring morning. We know they're supposed to be dangerous and lightning fast, and hope that they'll become more active as the story warms up.
Unfortunately, the characters and related plot developments are rather lethargic and never end up delivering many strikes, comedic or otherwise. In fact, the one thing the film is missing is enough venom to sustain a story like this. In counter retaliation films such as "The War of the Roses," the "fun" of watching battling characters is in the progressively increasing scale of their volleys and the creative and ruthless means to which they'll go to win.
While I'm not familiar with such tactics in Westlake's original novel, those that the filmmakers have used here are surprisingly lame from both a comedic and retaliatory measure. To make matters worse, Weisman and Chapman have taken the easy way out of characters figuring out their opponent's moves. Rather than doing something clever or crowd pleasing, Lawrence's character simply employs a computer hacker to discover DeVito's whereabouts and itinerary, while the latter uses tarot cards to discover that his adversary has broken into his place. That's lazy storytelling at its best (or worst), and prevents the viewer from enjoying or rooting for the characters and their actions.
Instead, the filmmakers seem to have figured that having Lawrence and his partner in crime, John Leguizamo, dressing up and acting like Arabs (with towels on their heads and jabbering in faked, Arabic accents) or donning a big afro or stereotypical Bavarian accent (with a monocle no less) respectively would be a good substitute. Not surprisingly, such moments aren't, and while diehard fans of either comedian/actor might enjoy such antics, they're simply dumb when not being offensive.
As far as the overall performances are concerned, Lawrence ("Big Momma's House," "Blue Streak") brings nothing unique to the role beyond his normal shtick. While the same can be said about DeVito ("Drowning Mona," "Ruthless People") in this sort of role, at least he's got playing such a part down pat.
In the supporting roles, the likes of John Leguizamo ("Moulin Rouge," "Summer of Sam"), Larry Miller ("Best in Show," "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps"), Nora Dunn ("Heartbreakers," "Three Kings") and Richard Schiff ("Lucky Numbers," TV's "The West Wing") can't do much with their flatly drawn characters other than appear as familiar faces to the viewer.
Only Bernie Mac ("Life," "The Players Club") as a launderer and William Fichtner ("The Perfect Storm," "Passion of Mind") as a foppish detective get any mileage out of their characters, with the latter getting some of the film's biggest laughs from the actor's over the top, flamboyant performance.
Perhaps stymied by the effort to keep the film at a PG-13 level, the filmmakers didn't make the characters ruthless and amoral enough to make this sort of story work. Despite the potential for some fun retaliatory reciprocation between the two main characters, the film comes off as rather flat and uninspired, with only a few, occasional laughs breaking up what's otherwise an unimaginative and monotonous exercise. Somewhat of an appropriate cinematic answer to its titular question, "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.