|A Thin Line Between Love & Hate|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 November 1999|
If you like Martin Lawrence -- really really really like Martin Lawrence, about as much as, say, his mother likes him -- you will enjoy A THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE a heck of a lot more than the rest of us. This is Martin Lawrence's ego trip movie. He stars in it. He directed it. He wrote the story. He co-wrote the screenplay. He was the music supervisor. Under a pseudonym, he apparently did some stunts. He's one of the executive producers. He was a busy man with a lot of responsibilities, few of which he seems to have filled very well. A THIN LINE is to Martin Lawrence what HARLEM NIGHTS was to Eddie Murphy: a vanity project wrecked on the rocks of arrogance.
The plot is a mix of SUNSET BLVD. (it even opens with and is narrated by a man face down in a swimming pool) and FATAL ATTRACTION; there's even a dialog reference to the latter, as if by pointing out within the movie that the plot is a ripoff, permission is gained to be a ripoff. Unfortunately, the movie is also a comedy.
The success of the film doesn't just depend heavily on the audience's fondness for Lawrence, the affection is crucial. But Lawrence doesn't do anything on screen to gain our affection. Producer George Jackson's warm, ingratiating commentary even says that this love is essential -- but Lawrence, talented comic actor though he is, lacks warmth and is short on charisma.
He plays Darnell Wright, a junior partner in Chocolate City, a popular jazz/rap nightclub owned by Smitty (Roger E. Mosley). Darnell is absolutely, serenely certain he's catnip for women, irresistible, devastatingly sexy, and utterly desirable. And he is. There's an embarrassing montage at the beginning showing Darnell cutting a swath across black Los Angeles, with every woman he meets insane with desire to crawl into bed with him. We're supposed to find him charming despite his brassy approach, but he's not; after a while, he comes across as repellent, not attractive.
His mother (Della Reese, good as always) warns him that there is a thin line between love and hate (someone had to say the title), and that he's running a major risk. But Darnell doesn't give a damn; he knows he'll always win out in the end. We're supposed to find it an indication of a kind of essential innocence that he's never been to bed with Mia (Regina King), a long-time friend who's now (in an odd but interesting touch) in the Air Force. Of course, this also makes it absolutely certain that they will get together before the end of the movie.
Darnell is surprised when he encounters cool, elegant Brandi Web (Lynn Whitfield), who seems to be completely resistant to his hitherto unassailable charms. But she does come back to Chocolate City, and regally flirts with the now lust-filled Darnell. He makes a bet with his best friend, Tee (Bobby Brown), that he can indeed seduce Brandi without playing unfair by telling her he loves her.
Brandi, a very wealthy real estate agent with an MBA from Harvard, is gradually revealed as an unstable obsessive who murdered her husband when she found him unfaithful. This only causes Darnell momentary hesitation, and he continues with -- and succeeds in -- his plan.
Then things go very wrong, of course, since this is a FATAL ATTRACTION wanna-be. In another SUNSET BLVD. touch, Darnell allows Brandi to buy him expensive clothes and provide him a limo. But he's now falling for Mia; true love has caught up with Darnell at last. However, the script (by Kim Bass, Kenny Buford, Bentley Kyle Evans and Lawrence) has Darnell promising the unstable Brandi he'll come to her home for her birthday, then skipping out to sleep with Mia. (Evidently leaving the limo driver cooling his heels all night at the curb out front.) We're supposed to regard this as proof that he's in love with Mia, but to abandon the desperately lonely Brandi comes across as cold, mean opportunism. He's just as cold to her when they next meet, but clearly the intention is for us to find him justified in this behavior.
Brandi becomes completely unhinged, and begins a campaign of terror directed at Darnell and those around him. But very little of it is credible; the comic tone of the movie strongly suggests that nothing really bad is going to happen to anyone, which of course wipes out the potential for suspense. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a brilliant real estate agent would fall apart emotionally so readily.
Lawrence's performance is mannered and self-indulgent; he can't seem to deliver a line without playing with it -- hesitations, dropped words, tricks with emphasis. His sexual exploits are supposed to be randy, good-natured fun, but because Lawrence lacks on-screen warmth and charm, at least in this movie, instead he seems like a predator. And when he condescendingly confronts his younger sister's prom date, he comes across as a hypocrite. That may have actually been the intention of the scene, but it's just another element that makes it very hard to give a damn about what happens to Darnell.
The movie itself is similar to Lawrence's performance: it's stuffed with scenes that don't tie in with the story, or much of anything else. There's a lengthy sequence in which strippers are auditioned for Chocolate City that should have been dropped for irrelevance, but it's hardly the only such scene.
Lynn Whitfield and Regina King give good performances despite the fact that their roles are confusingly written. Roger E. Mosley is mostly wasted in the throwaway role of the nightclub manager; he's only around to offer Darnell obvious advice. Bobby Brown's role might as well have been played by Lawrence, since Tee and Darnell are essentially identical.
The DVD itself is a standard package, improved by the narrative track by George Jackson, who sounds as though the making of the film was a good deal of fun. But very little of that fun is conveyed in the movie.