BAPS

Toothless
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1997
Director: 
Robert Townsend
Starring: 
Halle Berry, Natalie Desselle, Martin Landau, Ian Richardson
The Setup: 
Two African-American women from Georgia go to L.A. and get involved in something… too weird and complicated to explain.
Discussion: 

This has been on my list for a while, and having watched a few serious and somewhat dreary movies for a while, I needed to get something amusing in my DVD player, STAT. Now, the box art of this disc and the title BAPS, which stands for Black American Princesses, and is obviously a play on the acronym JAPS, a colloquial insult meaning Jewish American Princesses who are superficial and overly materialistic, would lead you to believe that it is going to be a fairly un-PC and irreverent look at a class of entitled black women who are not too bright and demand some serious luxury and top-level merchandise. Well, how wrong you would be, and what you do end up with here is… certainly not what you might imagine. Ever.

So we're in Decatur, Georgia. Nisi, played by Halle Berry, is a diner waitress, as is her friend Mickey, played by pleasantly plump Natalie Desselle. They get off work and their respective boyfriends don't show up to walk them home, because they're off trying to open their taxi service, despite the fact that Nisi's boyfriend doesn't even have his driver's license. They go home, where Nisi does Mickey's hair, and see an ad on MTV that Heavy D is holding open auditions for a dancer for his videos, who will also receive $10,000. So they decide to go to L.A., after a brief skit at "Ladies' night" at some club, where we get a little more info on their respective beaus, who are both losers with no dreams.

So they fly to L.A., each with massive hair, because "we have to look like stars." Mickey keeps hitting this uptight white guy in the face with her hair, until he begs to be reseated, then they start the in-flight movie, which can't be seen because of their hair. One guy shouts "I paid good money to see this!" which is somewhat of an odd thing to shout on an airplane. Did he check out what the in-flight movie was before he bought his ticket? One touch I did like is that they have this "nice" black stewardess with dreadlocks have to come and tell them to "lower their hair."

After flipping out over seeing LL Cool J at the airport, they find a huge line of women lined up to audition. Nisi tells them to all go home, because she's there now and is sure to win. A second later they have been dismissed, and are all despondent, when another guy comes up and says that he too is making a music video, and if they just come with him they'll get free room and board and $10,000. So off they go. I should mention at some point that they both have two-inch fingernails. I should also mention that as unfunny and toothless as most of it is, I was giggling fairly regularly at the two leads' performances.

So they are brought to this huge remote mansion, where they walk around for a while, amazed at the wealth, and have a long, somewhat funny scene of physical comedy revolving around a bidet. Then they find out the real reason they're there: the guy, Isaac, hired them to pretend to be the granddaughters of the black woman his ailing grandfather was in love with, and to do "anything and everything" to make his final days happy ones. At this point you at home are sitting there, simultaneously saying "Oh, so I guess that's what Martin Landau is doing in this movie," and "Uh, okay, this is going in directions I never would have expected."

So they come down to dinner with Landau and see that he's eating all this healthy / boring shit, and Mickey says that's why he's sick. She goes in commandeers the kitchen and, apparently in the space of 30 minutes, whips up a full soul food meal, using what looks like every utensil, pot, pan and ingredient in the kitchen. This makes Landau crazy, he says it's just like his former GF used to make, and he is delighted and super energized afterward. Soon after, this greasy Italian shows up and comes on hard to Mickey, and there's more humiliation of the uptight white butler—who soon enough they're all on wonderful terms with.

So Landau keeps getting more energized and really loves the two women—taking them on shopping sprees and such. One night the woman catch a burglar in the house and beat the shit out of him and—it turns out to be Mickey's Italian boyfriend! He was in on a plan with Isaac the grandson to set up the BAPS and blackmail his grandfather and contest the will or whatever. Watch as the police cart away the Italian BF and—WHO are all those bystanders? You have these shocked residents standing around staring, but remember, this is a private home on its own large tract of land. Did these people actually drive there just to stand around?

So I goes along, some parts of it reasonably funny, until Landau offers the women checks for $40,000, and they both tear them up because it's not about the money for them. Then they all go dancing—they each get a short dancing showcase—wherein Landau is having an awesome time, until he suddenly has chest pains and has to return to bed. There, Nisi confesses her love for Ali—you remember that minor boyfriend she had at the beginning that she barely seemed to have a relationship with?—and they have this whole intense conversation, and you at home are realizing that this is turning more into some sort of Lost In Translation-esque odd couple friendship movie, which is fine, but not at all what I rented the movie for. Down with Mickey, Nisi says they should just write a note and leave, because of "The guilt! The guilt!" that Landau still thinks they're the granddaughters of his dead true love.

SPOILERS > > > So as they're considering leaving the find that the butler, who is now totally their home slice, as brought their two boyfriends from the hood, who have both completely cleaned up, Ali having finally gotten his driver's license. They have this long dance scene and around this time, the mawkish, overbearing synth / muzak score [by Stanley Clarke] becomes really apparent. Then Mickey's boyfriend pretends to cry while being so broken up over the depth of his feelings for Mickey, as she sits there, sort of amazed at his performance—an example of the strain of really amusing deadpan humor that runs throughout the movie, which is good, but so at odds with the rest of the film that you sit there wondering whether it's supposed to be funny or not.

Then Landau has a heart attack, and this African-American [I think, could also go Latina] woman shows up as a lawyer and get this, SHE is the screenwriter of the movie! I have to say that her general appearance and the level of depth apparent in her eyes [I won't say WHAT that level seems to be] explains A LOT about how the screenplay ended up as it did. So Landau's on his death bed, unable to speak, and Nisi's about to confess that she's not who he thinks she is, when he puts his finger to his lips, and soon expires. Poor Landau is really giving his considerable all here, seemingly unaware of what movie he's in. The lawyer explains that he knew all along that they weren't the granddaughters of Landau's ex, because she had no kids. Then they have a huge emotional goodbye with the butler, while you are like—how did I end up in THIS movie?

Then there's the scene where the will is read—by the screenwriter/lawyer—and she reads Landau's note to "his BAPS." This term has not been used for the entire movie, and the lawyer has to spell it out and explain what it means, and it has the really jarring effect of sounding like Landau is suddenly insulting the two women, or that he had a much more distant, critical relationship to them than we thought. Then when she reads the part about who Landau left the bulk of his money to—guess who?—the sound drops out so we can hear more of the horrid synth soundtrack. Then there is a short epilogue where we see that Nisi and Mickey have opened their dream restaurant / salon, and their boyfriends have opened their limo service [presumably with the women's money?]. Then they all go dancing and get down, and we have the requisite "the uptight white butler gets down" scene, but suddenly there's this other guy in identical white suit, dancing with him. Wait a minute—has the butler been gay this entire time? WHO is that guy? I'll bet there are some deleted scenes laying around somewhere. No, no, no need to dig them out.
< < < SPOILERS END

What a bizarre film. I was expecting something along the lines of Romy and Michele, that is, an affectionate but biting look at a certain class of women who are none too bright, which the box, trailer and title would lead you to believe. But in that respect, the movie is really toothless—there's just no criticism and no bite. Luckily what it has instead are really funny performances by Berry and Desselle, who are so funny and go so wholeheartedly into their roles that the movie becomes funny in spite of itself, but again, you're left wondering if it's TRYING to be funny or just is—because the funny parts aren't really in the obvious "jokes."

Then we take the bizarre right turn into geriatric care drama. It's okay, it works okay as a sort of "special [i.e. extremely odd] relationship" movie, it's just that it's a movie NO ONE renting this wanted to see! It's like renting Friday and having the last half be a remake of Driving Miss Daisy. And then you see the screenwriter, right there on screen, and the focus [for me, at least] becomes what kind of person must SHE be to have written something like this. A prime example being the colossal misstep of introducing the film's title so late into the movie. It's not—well, okay, it's awful—but it can be enjoyed… it's just so odd one isn't sure how to react to it.

So there ya go. Watch it if you want, but the great comedy on a certain type of extremely materialistic and not-quite-so-bright African-American women has yet to be created.

Should you watch it: 

It won't kill you, but it ain't great by any means.