B.A.P.S.: Robert Townsend Screwball Comedy Starring Halle Berry

Utterly formulaic and distastefully fake, Robert Townsend’s new screwball comedy, B.A.P.S., is a modern fairy tale that imposes the central premise of Pretty Woman on the familiar “fish-out-of-water” and “clashing cultures” format.

Lacking the potent or timely concepts of New Line’s more successful black-themed movies, such as Set It Off or The Thin Line Between Love and Hate, this spring release will enjoy a moderate theatrical run, supported by mostly middle and working class black viewers, with limited crossover appeal but slightly brighter video prospects.

Shamelessly pandering to the audience with her simplistic version of the American Dream, screenwriter Troy Beyer (who also plays a supporting part in the film) has constructed a fantasy-like narrative, made up of bits and pieces of successful comedies of the last decade, most notably Pretty Woman, Arthur, Down and Out in Beverly Hills and other films set in this frequent target for American satires.

Nonetheless, the characterization of the black protagonists is so shallow and one-dimensional that if white filmmakers had made the movie they might have been charged with serious racial stereotyping.

Tale begins at a greasy spoon in Decatur, Georgia, where best friends Nisi (Halle Berre) and Mickey (Natalie Desselle) work as waitresses, but fantasize about a better life. Stuck in unfulfilling jobs, and dating unambitious men well beneath their level, they dream of breaking free from their daily grind–and opening the world’s first combo business of a restaurant and hair salon.

Opportunity knocks when Nisi learns about an open casting call for a Heavy D video in L.A. Bombarded by the same ad on TV, radio and magazines, she persuades her hesitant buddy Mickey to fly to California for the audition convinced she could win the $10,000 top prize. However, tossed out of the audition, and just as they’re contemplating their options, a chauffeur named Antonio (Luigi Amodeo), who had watched Nisi’s sexy preparation for the audition, offers them to star in another music video, one to be shot by his rich boss, Mr. Blakemore (Martin Landau), who owns a huge estate in Beverly Hills.

Upon arrival at the elegant mansion, things take yet another unexpected twist, when Blakemore’s nephew, Isaac (Jonathan Fried), negates Antonio’s offer and tells them of Lily, the one and only love his ailing uncle had had in his life, but was discouraged to pursue because Lily was his family’s black housekeeper. To please his uncle, Isaac asks Nisi to pose for a week as Lily’s granddaughter, a gesture for which she and her friend will be provided with a room and board in the mansion, plus a nice cash reward.

The women settle in the house and, predictably, their presence immediately delights Blakemore, but initially upsets his stiff and longtime butler, Manley (Ian Richardson). Under their influence–and with the help of heartfelt cooking–Blakemore regains his zest for life. The trio bond, and in a series of montages reminiscent of Pretty Woman, they go on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive, disco dancing in hot clubs, and so on.

To disrupt the triangle’s genuine bliss, scripter Beyer introduces some schematic complications, such as an implausible plot to bilk the millionaire out of his fortune. And following the pattern of numerous films, there’s mutual learning: the old aristocratic man informs the unrefined women in matters of taste and etiquette, transforming them into black American princesses (hence the title), and in turn the good-hearted women rejuvenate him with their inherent gaiety and unadorned sincerity.

Over the last decade, helmer Townsend has acquired some technical skills and, indeed, some of the montages are smoothly executed and visually pleasing. But he has not gained much subtlety or sophistication since The Five Heartbeats and Meteor Man–his earnest approach tends to make this story of cultural collision and life enhancement even more literal and explicit than it is on page.

Considering that B.A.P.S. is a very thin and basically plotless comic construct, the thesps are doing quite an amazing amount with their roles. Landau invests his part of the sensitive and benevolent patriarch with requisite persuasiveness and charm, and veteran pro Richardson, in a role that’s a variant of John Gielgud’s in Arthur, brings much needed eloquence and style. There’s also good chemistry between newcomer Desselle and the beautiful Berre, though she may be too intelligent and naturally refined to play a crass character; in the early scenes, Nisi flaunts a huge blonde hairdo and gold teeth.

Keith Brian Burns’ vividly colorful production design and Ruth Carter’s outrageously wild and kitschy costumes (including a neon-orange plastic outfit and a leopard-skin suit) continue to engage the eyes even when the ears get weary from the often-banal text.