REVIEW: Loose, Goofy Charm Anchors Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son

Movieline Score: 6

One of the potential upsides of a formula-driven franchise is a product finding a level of comfort and confidence in being exactly what it is. Big Macs, Gap T-shirts, and the latest Big Momma movie have it; their job is delivering on checked expectations, and yours is not making the mistake of wanting better. If anything I expected even less from Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son than it serves up, which is a reliable gimmick inhabiting a B-movie throwaway story. It goes down like a canned but genial '80s comedy: Without fanfare or much nutrition; part of your balanced breakfast.

The third of Martin Lawrence's outings as the FBI agent whose undercover repertoire consists of one fat suit and a mama bear affect, Like Father, Like Son features Malcolm (Lawrence) and his step-son Trent (Brandon T. Jackson), an aspiring rapper who wants to blow off college to follow his flow. Planning a sting to take down a ginger crime lord (Tony Curran), Malcolm and Trent have to go undercover when the flash drive containing the evidence needed to lock up the case gets hidden in an all-girls school for the arts. The set-up limps, for sure, but once that damn costume comes out and the boys get settled in as (and among) girls, the film settles into its limited groove.

It's tough to begrudge a film that incorporates, as this one does, a supremely corny Fame number into its undercover ogling and groaning pratfalls. Jackson makes a delightfully homely girl, and the make-up walks a fine line between outrageously bad and kind of amazing, particularly when Big Momma is chided into stripping down for a life studies class. John Whitesell (who also directed Big Momma 2) seeks out the usual all-girl environment gags, and on the whole the infiltration is twelfth generation Some Like It Hot stuff. And yet the mood is loose, the jokes gratuitous and yet short of vulgar; Big Momma and Charmaine (Jackson's doleful alter ego) maintain a certain dignity -- the former especially when he counsels the heartbroken and self-starved -- and the girls are go-getting performers and not just panty-wearing cuties (though they are occasionally that too). The resulting tone has more good humor and charm than Adam Sandler and his band of hostile chortleheads turn out on their best day.

Trent falls for a piano prodigy named Haley (Jessica Lucas) while trussed up as Charmaine, and engineers a romance that winds up jeopardizing the whole operation. Haley teaches him that education and seasoning help true artistry emerge, and Trent gets her to loosen the girls' school grip strangling her songwriting. It's cute, as is the big, fat reveal at the school's talent showcase. Strangely, both Lawrence and Jackson seem more at ease within their costumes; as men they're a little flat, and not only by comparison. But if no one distinguishes themselves in Like Father, Like Son, no one is disgraced, either. The closing credits run over the entire cast -- good guys, bad guys, girls and girl-impersonators, the obligatory Ken Jeong character -- freaking to the movie's theme song. It's such a dorky move, cheap and yet effective. Were you looking for more?