Hard-Luck Humor

Not awful, but not bad, either: David Alan Grier and De'Aundre Bonds in 3 Strikes

I know it's morning in America, and we happy citizens of the imperium are busy luxuriating in an endless tomorrow of IPO-generated wealth and eternally unfolding consumer options. So why, when I'm surrounded by audiences guffawing at bottom-shelf wisecracks, do I hear desperation in their laughter? In my more cynical moments, the only belief I'm able to retain is that we're so determined to be amused, so eager to forget our fates as mere biological extensions of computer terminals, that we'll laugh at anything put before us, no matter how lame.

Anything? Anything. Bette Midler driving a Yugo off a cliff to her death? Anything. Neve Campbell getting hit on by a dykey auto mechanic? An-y-thing. A dude running over a poodle with a push mower?

With Drowning Mona, director Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity, illtown) is so eager to prove he holds nothing sacred that he forgets to include any jokes. Here's the setup: When someone slashes the brakes on a car belonging to Midler's Mona Dearly, the town of Verplankt, New York, is thrilled. Turns out Mona was the most hated woman in town, you see, and so--get this--everyone had a reason to want her dead. This would-be High Concept supposedly differentiates the film from those murder mysteries in which nobody has a motive.

What actually distinguishes Drowning Mona, however, is a particularly virulent strain of the standard-issue Hollywood contempt for small-town Americans. Campbell and Jamie Lee Curtis (the latter giving a game but thankless performance) sport tasteless blond streaks in their hair, the men are swaddled in all manner of overpointed collars and overdetermined plaids, and everyone speaks in an impossible mongrelization of hick twang and New Yawkese and that marks them as dumb rubes--as if yokel stupidity were an ethnicity all its own.

As the investigating chief of police, however, Danny DeVito is subdued and honorable, obviously our likable stand-in. In other words, just as DeVito continues to distance himself from the lowlife shtick of his past, we get to distance ourselves from the rest of the slobs onscreen. The film's condescending attitude goes a long way toward explaining its dearth of jokes--the mere fact that said slobs (supposedly) exist is (supposedly) funny enough on its own.

3 Strikes is also a "black comedy"--as in darkly satiric, but also as in African-American. Rob Douglas (Brian Hooks) is paroled just as Los Angeles implements a particularly harsh three-strikes program--one ex-con got 25 years just for stealing a slice of pizza. A two-time offender, Rob has to keep his nose clean, or he's in for life. You can fill in the blanks from there.

As 'hood comedies go, 3 Strikes is hardly the worst. But it's hardly the baddest, either. Like director D.J. Pooh's surprisingly effective collaborations with Ice Cube, Friday and Next Friday, 3 Strikes offers comic relief from the well-intentioned but hamfisted social determinism of those liberal melodramas that treat the life of a young, "at-risk" black man as a tragedy in the making. South Central Los Angeles is rough, even deadly sometimes, Pooh's flicks acknowledge. But it's also home, and if you can't keep your sense of humor about it, you may as well be dead.

Granted, when Antonio Fargas's character cracks the twist top on a 40 and unleashes a prolonged, squishy fart at the same time, I'm not about to turn up my nose. But in fact, Pooh indulges in fewer dogshit gags, marijuana fumes, and booty jiggle here than usual. Unfortunately, he makes up for it with unhealthy dollops of homophobia and misogyny, expressed by the two greatest threats to a black man's safety in the 'hood comedy: forced, unexpected buggery and sexually predatory overweight women.

So 3 Strikes is a satire that enables you to laugh at the precarious absurdity of your situation--if you're an inner-city black man, that is. Because if Drowning Mona invites us to laugh mockingly at our social "lessers," 3 Strikes dares us to laugh at the misfortune of folks in a tight spot because of their race. If you're as white as I am, that makes for a deliberately uncomfortable sitting in more ways than one, as a merely dumb movie grows inadvertently and insidiously Brechtian. 3 Strikes' comic climax features a black man being pursued through the streets by a pack of slobbering German shepherds. Yeah, go on--laugh at that, muhfuh.


Drowning Mona and 3 Strikes are playing at area theaters.

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