Anything titled “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” practically begs to be skewered with a play on its name. While I won’t fall into that trap, it is incredibly tempting-after all, to do such lazy, hackneyed writing is to mirror the amount of effort put into this sloppy and generally unfunny comedy.
Of course, with two genuinely funny toplining stars-Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito-and a capable bench of supporting players, “What’s the Worst…” isn’t completely devoid of laughs. In fact, there is one genuine bring-down-the-house moment that has DeVito’s corrupt tycoon Max Fairbanks exploding into a torrent of profane language (explicitly translated by a sign language interpreter) during a Senate hearing. Yet nothing else in the film comes close to generating much laughter, let alone at the level that comes with that isolated moment of inspiration.
That’s all the more ruinous considering how improbable the basic plot is. Lawrence plays career thief Kevin Caffrey, who has the misfortune of robbing Max’s mansion when he actually happens to be there. As one last “f**k you” before the cops haul Kevin away, Max claims that Kevin’s good luck ring, an heirloom given to him by girlfriend Amber (Carmen Ejogo), is actually an item stolen from the house, so the cops force him to fork it over. Thus begins a game of one-upmanship that has Kevin and Max resorting to increasingly desperate measures-the former to get the ring, the latter to keep it-even as their overall fortunes take a precipitous tumble.
Suspension of disbelief would have been fairly easily achieved had director Sam Weisman and screenwriter Matthew Chapman (very loosely adapting the Donald E. Westlake novel of the same name) had come up with more moments like the Senate hearing and fewer of the plentiful flat ones, such a tired and obvious opening bit that has Kevin getting the better of a condescending white auction house employee. That said, the stars aren’t free from blame. DeVito, at the very least, appears to have some level of fun even if one’s seen him play such an oily sort many times before; on the other hand, Lawrence, usually such a reliable live wire, walks through his part-that is, when not throwing in a spontaneous and completely gratuitous dance bit here and there in a blatant attempt to force a cheap chuckle.
The supporting cast is more on the ball, but there’s only so much they can do for the film given the thankless nature of most of their parts. Among the criminally wasted are Bernie Mac (as Kevin’s uncle), Nora Dunn (as Max’s viper of a wife), Glenne Headly (as Max’s much-put-upon assistant), and the gorgeous and likable Ejogo (whose thin part here is still more meaty than the scraps Kenneth Branagh threw her in last year’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”). The big exception is William Fichtner, who tops all of the many weirdoes he’s ever played in the past as police detective Alex Tardio. A flamboyant fop with a weakness for creamy-colored suits and a habit of tossing his powdery locks, he’s the type of guy who coos “Pull daddy like a chariot!” as he walks his dogs. The character and Fichtner’s performance hardly fit in with the rest of “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”, and not necessarily because they are both incredibly bizarre-but because they are the only things about the film that doesn’t fit a familiar assembly line cookie cutter.