What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

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“What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” is a dishonest comedy in which far too many of the jokes are based on faulty premises — a case of setting up straw men just so you can knock them down.

The film’s alleged highlight is a scene in which swarthy tycoon Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito) answers his cell phone while testifying before a senate committee, which is being broadcast on C-SPAN. The caller is successful burglar Kevin Caffery (Martin Lawrence), who has been playing a childish game of thieving one-upmanship with Max. When Kevin annoys him on the phone, Max looks right at the cameras and lets loose a string of profanity, right there on TV.

Funny, right? Yeah, except who would answer his cell phone in the middle of testifying before a senate committee? (We’ll even overlook the issue of his profanities being bleeped on the air, even though C-SPAN is broadcasting live.) No one would. It’s a faulty premise. It doesn’t work.

Other examples have to do with character names. Max’s icy wife is named Lutetia. Why? So someone can call her Mortitia (as in Addams) instead. In the same scene, Max has a business associate named Picker. Why? So he can make a joke involving “Picker” and a crude slang term that sounds like it. Cheap laughs, both of them, based on names the movie made up in the first place.

It’s a lazy movie in others ways, too, mind you. While Kevin and his partner Burger (John Leguizamo) rifle through Max’s Washington, D.C., home, Max figures out they’re there through the use of tarot cards. Earlier, Kevin and Burger get out of a tight jam because they happen to know a magician who can pick any kind of lock. The movie likes to paint its characters into wacky corners, and then, rather than resorting to cleverness or comedy, use a magic carpet to fly them out again.

The plot has to do with Kevin being caught while robbing Max’s townhouse. Max tells the cops that the ring Kevin’s wearing is actually his, and of course the cops believe the victim over the would-be burglar. So now Max the businessman has robbed Kevin the robber. This particularly upsets Kevin’s girlfriend Amber (Carmen Ejogo), who, while on their first date, gave Kevin that ring as a token of their everlasting love and who has no problem with Kevin being a professional thief but is quite peeved indeed when he lies to her. (Honey, get yourself some help.)

So Kevin has to get the ring back, but Max won’t give it to him, and it goes on like that. The action, alas, doesn’t escalate. Instead of Kevin breaking into one of Max’s houses and Max retaliating with something bigger and Kevin then getting even more grandiose with his schemes, it remains constant: Kevin burglarizes, Max gets mad, Kevin burglarizes. Not until the end do the stakes ever get higher.

Martin Lawrence is a good deal more subdued than usual, which is a good thing, and Danny DeVito is affably sleazy, as always. Most of the actual entertainment in the film, however, comes from the supporting cast: William Fichtner as a fey police detective who dresses like Truman Capote; Bernie Mac as Kevin’s uncle and mentor; Siobhan Fallon as the magician’s wife; Nora Dunn as Lutetia; Glenne Headly as Max’s long-suffering personal assistant; Larry Miller as Max’s bodyguard.

None of these are strong enough to make them the main characters, but as bits of diversion occurring in the periphery, they do nicely. Good casting and good writing are not exactly the hallmarks of a Martin Lawrence comedy, but at least they got one of them right this time.

C+ (; PG-13, some harsh profanity, some pretty mild sexuality.)

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