Malibu’s Most Wanted

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Little else about “Malibu’s Most Wanted” is interesting, so let’s talk about its role as a social indicator. It will help us pass the time before we have to get down to actually reviewing the film, which we’re not really looking forward to.

Every movie is a product of its time, but “Malibu’s Most Wanted” has its date of birth stamped on it more prominently than most. Much of the slang used in the hip-hop-heavy dialogue didn’t even exist three years ago; in 50 years, the film will read the way Middle English does now. It will be viewed as a curious artifact of how urban youth spoke in the early 21st century.

But beyond the specific language used, even the movie’s premise could not exist outside a 5-year radius of 2003. The protagonist is Brad Gluckman (Jamie Kennedy), a rich 21-year-old California boy who, all known facts notwithstanding, believes himself to be a part of black culture. He talks, walks and acts “black,” and fancies himself a rapper, too, calling himself B-Rad (“Bradley is my slave name,” he tells a therapist). Either lying or honestly misapprehending the situation, he speaks of Malibu when he says, “It’s hardcore up in the ‘bu.” Some of the hardcore gangstas in Malibu, he says, “even did time in public school.”

You get the joke. Here’s a kid whose only knowledge of ghetto life comes from hearing rap music, but who is so desperate to adopt SOME kind of culture other than his dull white-bread heritage that he forces hip-hopness into his personality, even though it doesn’t really fit. In terms of persona, to quote Chris Farley, he’s a fat guy in a little coat.

Except that Brad isn’t faking. Subconsciously, yes, surely he was bored with his privileged existence — he’s the son of a gubernatorial candidate — and reached out for something more flavorful. But consciously, he’s not posing or acting. He’s immersed himself so thoroughly in this culture that it has actually become his own.

White people pillaging black culture is nothing new, of course, but doing it with such impunity — insisting Brad isn’t acting at all but simply being himself — is a fairly recent development. And the idea of the natural segregation of the cultures has certainly gained more prominence recently, in particular as Eminem (a major inspiration to the filmmakers) has become a Grammy- and Oscar-winning rap artist and some people from both camps have wished he would stop trying to mix the races.

Brad is a white boy who, at least subconsciously, wishes he were black. We also meet two black men (Anthony Anderson and Taye Diggs) who are so “white,” they know less about black culture than Brad does. Are they sellouts? Have they betrayed their brothers and sisters by acting white? Or are they, like Brad, simply being themselves, making them blameless?

Despite having such heady racial issues at its core, “Malibu’s Most Wanted” does not seem particularly interested in examining them. Brad’s dad (Ryan O’Neal) isn’t embarrassed by his behavior because he feels there’s anything wrong with black people; it’s because Brad looks buffoonish when he puts on the ill-fitting hip-hop coat. (Brad’s way of helping Dad gain women voters is to make a banner that reads, “Gluckman is down with the b****** and ho’s.”) No one ever accuses Sean and P.J., the two white-acting black fellows, of being Uncle Toms; if they seem funny, it’s only because they’re not behaving the way we expect black people to — another commentary, perhaps, on the way we pigeonhole our various American cultures.

The only true moment of racial tension occurs when Brad uses the N-word while improvising rap lyrics at a black hip-hop club. The music stops, the audience gasps, the DJ shakes his head in disbelief. Brad realizes his mistake — as much as he’d like to be, he is NOT black and therefore may NOT use that word — and the crowd, rather than murdering him, lets him off with an “if-looks-could-kill” warning. It’s one brief moment when Brad has to accept that he’s white and that he cannot change that.

It’s just as well the movie doesn’t want to scrutinize true racial issues; this is a comedy, and a trifling one at that. Directed by John Whitesell (who works with Kennedy on TV’s “Jamie Kennedy Experiment”) and written by Kennedy and three cohorts, it ensures the premise never becomes more than utilitarian. It’s an excuse to tell jokes, not to comment in depth on society. As such, it garners a few laughs and is generally a harmless, pleasant way to kill 85 minutes, though I can’t imagine anyone remembering the film five years from now.

Anderson and Diggs may be the best thing about it. Their characters are actors hired by Brad’s father to carjack Brad and take him to the real ghetto, basically to scare the white back into him. Consequently, P.J. and Sean scramble to find anyone they know who lives in the ghetto, and must call upon all their thespianic training to act black enough to convince Brad. Diggs and Anderson are a hoot. They seem like they are playing legitimate (albeit broad) characters, while Kennedy seems like he’s acting in a comedy sketch. There’s an important distinction there, and it serves as a reminder that few films ever succeed with shoddy acting at the forefront, no matter how intriguing their subject matter may be. And even if Kennedy had been brilliant, “Malibu’s Most Wanted” still would have needed more than one joke to sustain it.

C+ (1 hr., 24 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, some brief sexuality.)

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