Putting movie cameras at the disposal of egomaniacs has resulted in much of the world's great film--the majority of it, probably. At the same time, most of the world's even moderately talented artists have known enough to turn the camera away from themselves occasionally.
Not sitcom star Martin Lawrence, who makes his directing debut in "A Thin Line Between Love & Hate," and proves that a little Lawrence goes a long way, and a lot is simply insufferable. Lawrence, who is also the film's executive producer, co-writer and star, does accomplish something quasi-Pirandellian: His performance as Darnell Wright is as oily and insincere as the character himself. It's too bad the director copped out at the end, or we might have had something vaguely interesting.
As it is, not much is even vaguely original. After an opening shot that cruises across water, which has become a real cliche, we see several hurtling bodies, a splash and meet Darnell in a "Sunset Boulevard"-heisted intro--face down and bleeding in a swimming pool. That's where he begins narrating his story through flashback. We'll return here by the movie's end, of course, because Lawrence stays true to his source material.
But in "Sunset Boulevard," the waterlogged William Holden was something of a victim. Not Darnell. In the subsequent story, which also borrows liberally from "Fatal Attraction" and "Play Misty for Me," he is all but oblivious to the feelings of his pursuer, Brandi (Lynn Whitfield), a woman who made it clear to Darnell from the outset that she couldn't put up with him treating her like . . . well, the way he treats every other woman in the film.
She turns lethal after his small betrayal, which is extreme. But rather than present this as the result of man's inhumanity to woman, it merely becomes something that's cramping Darnell's style (much of the film is devoted to proving just what a lover Darnell is). And then, when Darnell does voice something like remorse at the end of the film, it come off as not just smug but insulting--because he thinks we're going to buy it.
Add to this the socioeconomic minefield Lawrence lays out, and "A Thin Line" becomes an exercise in insecurity. Brandi is the woman with the MBA and the Malibu mansion, self-assured and powerful; Darnell and friend Tee (Bobby Brown) are striving to get a partnership with Smitty (Roger E. Mosely), owner of the club Chocolate City. After sweeping Brandi off her feet, Darnell decides he loves Mia (Regina King), who's debating whether to re-enlist in the Air Force--a fine career. But why does every female psycho-stalker have to be the overachiever like Brandi? Because the director thinks it makes his audience feel better?
It would be nice to say that Lawrence shows promise as a director, that he has an eye or a style or a good way with actors. But after a film as unwatchable as this, one can only hope he sticks to television.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, a sex scene and some violence. Times guidelines: Vulgarity and sexist attitudes make it unsuitable for most audiences.
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'A Thin Line Between Love & Hate'
Martin Lawrence: Darnell
Lynn Whitfield: Brandi
Regina King: Mia
Bobby Brown: Tee
Della Reese: Ma Wright
A Jackson-McHenry production in association with YOU GO BOY! productions, released by New Line Cinema and Savoy Pictures. Director Martin Lawrence. Executive producer Martin Lawrence. Producers Douglas McHenry, George Jackson. Screenplay by Martin Lawrence, Bentley Kyle Evans, Kenny Buford and Kim Bass, based on a story by Martin Lawrence. Cinematographer Francis Kenny. Editor John Carter. Costumes Eduardo Castro. Music Roger Troutman. Production design Simon Dobbin. Art director David Lazan. Set designer Suzan Wexler. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.