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'B.A.P.S.' Puts Teeth Into an Old Fable


Two Georgia peaches have invaded Beverly Hills, and they're wearing pumpkin-colored vinyl, stiletto fingernails and earrings the size of ICBMs.

In Robert Townsend's "B.A.P.S.," which in its goofy way is a kind of immigrant fable, cultures and classes collide, then meld in an ultimately enriched social landscape. Hearts soften; the old ways make accommodation for the new.

It's an old story: the American Genesis. But the conflicts here don't arise from religious oppression, politics or shrinking quotas. They're about too much mouth, too much South and too much mousse.

What are B.A.P.S.? Black American Princesses, of course. Halle Berry, proving she can handle trashy as well as classy, is Nisi, a waitress with blond hair, big dreams and a big gold cap on the occasional tooth. With her girlfriend Mickey (the delightful Natalie Desselle), she spends her days slinging greasy meat and burnt toast in the hash house of the dyspeptic Mr. Johnson (the fleeting but funny Bernie Mac). At night, they frequent the Gold Tooth bar, where their own dental apparel sets the metal detectors a-twitching.

Their land of limited opportunity is Decatur, Ga., where the girls want to open a combination soul-food restaurant and beauty parlor. But when they hear via MTV that rapper Heavy D is launching a search for a video "dream girl," the two head for Los Angeles like a pair of overdressed 747s.

A Ricki Lake appearance? No, but they do crash-land, blowing the audition and all their money. They're also spotted by an emissary of Isaac Blakemore (Jonathan Fried), who recruits them for a seemingly well-intentioned charade: Nisi is to impersonate the granddaughter of Lily, the long-lost love of his filthy rich uncle (Martin Landau) who is dying of cancer. It would make Blakemore's last days so happy, they're told, and the $10,000 Isaac offers doesn't hurt.

What they don't know yet is that Isaac's up to no good, and they're going to be the elder Blakemore's best friends.

The plot is full of mistaken identity, exaggeration, excess--and exaggerations of excess. The running gag, of course, is that Nisi and Mickey are walking fashion crises and think they're chic.

Their conflict with Blakemore's ultra-proper butler Manley (Ian Richardson), whom Mickey dubs "Alfred," is clearly going to end up a sticky-sweet alliance. Their unemployed boyfriends--Ali (Pierre) and James (A.J. Johnson)--are clearly not out of the picture. The picture is clearly on familiar terrain.

Townsend has the benefit of two really winning actresses--Desselle, of "Set It Off," does a pretty good job of stealing the picture--and a willingness to forgo a lot of the nasty humor that might have come easy here. Although there isn't much vulgarity, it is used to great effect.

But Townsend, whose erratic directorial record has included "Hollywood Shuffle," "Meteor Man" and "The Five Heartbeats," suffers from what might be called Penny Marshall Syndrome. A good director of middle-brow comedy, he loses his composure when matters turn serious. The music swells. So do the tears. The buoyancy goes pooooof, and the film goes slack with sentiment.

Townsend is also hampered by a Troy Beyer script that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Isaac's scheme to steal his uncle's fortune is too half-baked to be believable. Whether old Blakemore is actually dying of cancer is a question too: Given that the imminent death story was part of the initial scam to get the women to the house, we have no reason to think it's true, and Townsend doesn't straighten us out.

And when Blakemore waxes nostalgic over Lily, the story really gets knotty: They were lovers on Blakemore's family estate, presumably when they were young, because his parents broke them up. Yet, he tells Nisi that "everything I have today I owe to her." Yeah, her and the trust fund, I guess.

It's true that airtight storytelling isn't the reason to see "B.A.P.S."--Desselle and Berry are. But the sloppiness of Beyer's script is symptomatic of what keeps the film from being first-rate.

* MPAA rating: R for adult situations, vulgarity. Times guidelines: Most teens have seen worse.



Halle Berry: Nisi

Martin Landau: Mr. Blakemore

Ian Richardson: Manley

Natalie Desselle: Mickey

New Line Cinema presents an Island Pictures Production of a Robert Townsend film. Director Robert Townsend. Producers Mark Burg, Loretha Jones. Executive producers Michael De Luca, Jay Stern. Screenplay Troy Beyer. Editor Patrick Kennedy. Costumes Ruth Carter. Music supervisor Pilar McCurry. Production designer Keith Brian Burns. Set decorator Casey Hollenbeck. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

* In general release.

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