June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a depressed and depressing abandon-all-hope listlessness to What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, a worst-case comedy that answers its own title question in every scene: The worst thing that could happen, certainly as far as comedy is concerned, is for everyone involved to stop giving a damn. Funny, not funny, good acting, bad, what the heck. Let’s move on to the next scene, people; lunch break in an hour.

That’s the feeling, anyhow, of this gassy hill of beans, in which Martin Lawrence plays Boston-based professional thief Kevin Caffrey and Danny DeVito plays Max Fairbanks, the billionaire whose North Shore mansion Kevin targets. Now, Max we know and understand. He’s one of those brash, ball-busting little men in whom DeVito specializes — a loud, lewd, cigar-chomping vulgarian from the Ruthless People school of ”f — – you.” DeVito is a travel-size physical specimen, but he’s so lusty, noisy, and hairy in his hollering and hell-raising that he easily stands up to men twice his stature (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger), and the discrepancy between height and breadth of apoplexy is the actor’s charm. As the tax-cheating head of a colossal company with the paradigmatic name of Global Universal Industries, Max bullies his attorney (Richard Schiff, doing a variation on his West Wing sadsack civil-servant persona), scares his chief of security (Larry Miller, nailing his few screwy scenes), and cheats on his armor-plated wife (Nora Dunn) with a bosomy magazine pinup girl (Sascha Knopf) who really wants to be a TV entertainment journalist. (Laugh, go ahead; that’s one of the script’s only recognizable jokes.)

And so when Kevin has the audacity to break into Max’s mansion — not knowing the tycoon is upstairs, hootchy-kootchying with the Entertainment Tonight host wannabe — the captain of industry explodes with outrage: A pipsqueak wants to rob Max? Hah! Max will fight like a pit bull, stealing something of Kevin’s in return.

This escalating revenge might be a fairer and more amusing battle if the Kevin we see weren’t such a smudge, a puddle, a disjointed collection of Martin Lawrence routines and comedy postures passing as a character. Kevin is supposed to be educated and discerning enough to spot a fake masterpiece from the real deal, yet he shares his heistwork with a motormouthed hothead (John Leguizamo, coughing up a nervous string of caricatures, from gibberish-speaking Arab emir to monocled German twit) and a hood-styled lounge lizard (The Original Kings of Comedy’s Bernie Mac). He rolls like a ladies’ man, yet he’s immediately smitten and reformed by a random pretty woman (Carmen Ejogo, far more effective as Coretta Scott King in HBO’s Boycott). He’s supposed to be Martin Lawrence funny — edged with raunch, spry, in high gear — but instead he’s simply all over the map.

And wherever Lawrence rolls, director Sam Weisman (George of the Jungle) doggedly follows, not so much advancing the story or shaping the movie as mopping up spills and stapling down flyaway pieces of acting from the rowdy supporting cast of comedy players. Many of them, including past and present SNL cast members Dunn, Ana Gasteyer, and Siobhan Fallon, are improv oriented and play their scenes like blackout sketches, for their own amusement. Others, including Glenne Headly as Max’s tarot card-reading executive assistant and William Fichtner as a dandyish Boston detective of exquisite wardrobes and exotically ambiguous sexual preferences, are old hands at creating outre characters, and while away the hours playing with flamboyant scarves and gestures.

Too bad none of the talent seems to have been introduced to one other. What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake and written as a string of flameout one-liners by Matthew Chapman (Consenting Adults), is one of those all-stops-out ensemble capers that, on paper, seems ready-made for movie adaptation, what with the con men, babes, and wheeler-dealers passing through ritzy locations. The movie was filmed in and around an airbrushed Boston, as we are meant to tell from requisite shots of the city skyline off the Charles River.(As a small-time accomplice of Kevin and his crew, Siobhan Fallon gamely weighs in with a full-tilt Southie accent, although she’s given little to do besides sound blue-collar tough.)

Boston gets scrod in this production, and so do moviegoers. Maybe the worst thing that can happen is that every other movie at the multiplex will be sold out this weekend. D-

The Animal, a Columbia Pictures comedy starring Rob Schneider, did not screen in time to appear in this issue, but a review can be found on ew.com.

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mpaa
PG-13
runtime
1 minutes
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