Ambitious 'Who's the Man?' doesn't seem to know who's on first

April 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Can it be any coincidence that the title "Who's the Man?" subtly alludes to the great Bud Abbott and Lou Costello routine, "Who's on first?" The similarities go further: Dr. Dre and Ed Lover, the hosts of "Yo! MTV Raps," in some ways actually reflect the physical typology that Bud and Lou so vivdlyrepresented.

The doc is short and not unblessed with avoirdupois. He is, in short, fat as a couple of cabooses. Yet in his bulk is not strength or fury but an amazing placidity; insult him and he just sits there, absorbing the barbs like a St. Sebastian pricked with arrows but shielded by heavenly grace.

On the other hand, Ed Lover is a tall and bony figure, a little more excitable, apt to go off half-cocked. But the two young men have wonderful comic timing between them and are very funny.

If only the movie knew who was on first.

Insanely ambitious, "Who's the Man?" attempts to be a rap showcase, an urban thriller, a comedy, a social platform and a star vehicle at once. Well, one out of five ain't bad -- it gets the star part right.

The movie opens in "Big Nick's" barbershop in Harlem, where amid junkies and crackies and prosties, a healthy and thriving male culture seems to be busting out all over, as the young and old men of the neighborhood sit around the shop and kvetch. Director Ted Demme really captures the down-homey atmosphere of such a place and the easy give and take of the customers.

But Nick's insistence that his two least talented haircutters take the New York City Police exam is the jumping-off point for a somewhat incoherent mystery story in which the two somehow make it to the precincts (don't the NYC cops have weight requirements?) even though their own and their friends' contempt for the police is a constant (and irritating) theme in the movie. Then they set out to solve the mystery of Nick's murder, which is a complex tale of greed, manipulation and turns on . . . the discovery of oil in Harlem.

As a platform for young rappers, I suspect "Who's the Man?" will disappoint followers of that style of music: as the ads say Ice-T, Salt 'n Pepa, House of Pain, Kris Kross and others do appear, but it's not as if they perform. Rather -- take the case of Kris Kross -- they show up in a single, irrelevant but "cute" scene and then disappear.

The best sequences in the picture involve the histrionic Irish stand-up comedian Dennis Leary, playing a New York police sergeant, upbraiding the ever-placid Dr. Dre about his weight and his penchant for doughnuts. Dennis Leary? A police sergeant? Now that's funny.

"Who's the Man?"

Starring Ed Lover and Dr. Dre.

Directed by Ted Demme.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

... **

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