Eddie Murphy once appeared on a "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which he went undercover as a white man. Bizarre though it may have been, that sketch was both an expression of minority paranoia and a reflection of majority racism.
It was also hilarious.
Andy Breckman, who wrote the famous "Mr. White" sketch, expanded the idea and adapted it as a screenplay in 1986. Five years later, that screenplay -- or, rather, a reworked version of it -- has become a movie called "True Identity."
It is not hilarious.
The plot centers on Miles Pope, a black actor who discovers that a mob boss named Frank Luchino has had plastic surgery and has secretly begun a new life as a billionaire businessman. Luchino wants to have Miles killed before Miles can share the kingpin's secret with the authorities. But before Luchino's men can get to Miles, Miles disguises himself as a white man.
The elements that made the "SNL" sketch funny and provocative have largely been neutralized in the film. Director Charles Lane keeps "True Identity" from being cheap or offensive -- as a movie on this subject could easily have become. But Mr. Lane explores the intriguing ironies of the situation only occasionally -- as when Miles, changing into his disguise, listens to a black cab driver (Melvin Van Peebles) complain about how some blacks try to alter their appearances to look more like whites.
Instead of Eddie Murphy, a British comedian named Lenny Henry plays Miles Pope, and the casting doesn't work as well as it needs to. Henry fails to project a strong enough personality before his transformation for the change to be sufficiently dramatic.
"True Identity" comes off as a textbook case of what happens when an independent filmmaker with a fragile, offbeat talent tries to pass himself off as a purveyor of slick, high-concept entertainment. In a situation like that, a true identity crisis may very well be inevitable.
Starring Lenny Henry and Frank Langella.
Directed by Charles Pope.
Released by Touchstone Pictures.
... * 1/2