Published February 1, 1998
Senseless, directed by Penelope Spheeris, is a gross-out comedy of the school of Eddie Murphy’s Absent Minded Professor, designed to appeal to upwardly mobile blacks. Marlon Wayans stars as Darryl Whitherspoon, a student working several jobs in order to pay his way through college while at the same time sending money home to his single mother and four younger siblings. Desperately in need of cash, he agrees for $3000 to be the guinea pig for an experimental drug designed to increase the acuity of human sense perceptions. It also has some comic side effects which exploit Mr Wayans’s talent for grotesque facial contortions. But the drug works as advertised, and Darryl finds that his newly-acquired supersenses have not only given him an unexpected advantage over his supercilious white rival, Scott Thorpe (David Spade), for a coveted internship at a Wall Street securities firm, but they have also helped him to impress a young woman, Janice (Tamara Taylor), in whom he has taken an interest.
All seems set fair for the magic drug to bring Darryl the fame and the girl and the money all at a stroke when, on the principle that if one’s good, two’s better, he gives himself a double dose of the drug. Suddenly he finds that for the next three days — the three days of the final screenings for the internship — only four of his senses can function at the same time. Which one will kick out next is unpredictable, and naturally the cause of much merry slapstick featuring ever more bizarre and humiliating situations cheerfully if demonstratively endured by the energetic Mr Wayans. There will be no prizes for guessing whether or not he wins the contest with the rich and snotty Scott or re-unites with the charming Janice after an unfortunate episode, brought on at least partly by his temporary malaise, involving a gratuitous hussy.
These kinds of films always have a moral subtext, a distinctive message of black self-improvement which is at the same time very American. We should all approve on social grounds of the Horatio Alger element, I have no doubt, and especially of the fact that Darryl’s strivings are ultimately rewarded not on account of the magic potion but because he has studied very hard. Regrettably, the few examples of his learning that we are vouchsafed are odds and ends of economic mumbo jumbo either on fiscal and monetary policy (hardly likely to be of much use to a junior intern) or else tending to the highly dubious proposition that managers who are generous and kind-hearted to their employees or invest in economically depressed communities are on the high road to success and high stock prices while wicked corporate downsizers are poor risks on the market. So that’s all right then. Darryl’s strenuous academic labors have taught him that you get rich by being nice. This formula has doubtless worked for Marlon Wayans, but I think Darryl Witherspoon should ask for his money back.