Ethics & Public Policy Center

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Published in EPPC Online on June 1, 2001



There is a moment in What’s the Worst that Could Happen? where the movie almost seems to live up to the promise of its title. This comes when Max Fairbanks (Danny DeVito), a nasty and insufferable billionaire, attempts to justify to his wife, Lutetia (Nora Dunn) his behavior in getting involved in an increasingly destructive war with a resourceful thief called Kevin Caffery (Martin Lawrence) over a ring which he stole from the thief while the thief was trying to rob him. Max is proud of himself for having robbed a thief, and the thief himself, his honor at stake, is improbably capable of a series of devastating retaliations. But Max is nothing daunted. “Once a man in my position shows his feelings or lets his defenses down for one single moment,” he says, “he’s dead.”

“It’s just a ring,” says the increasingly exasperated Lutetia, echoing the feminine feeling of annoyance of Kevin’s girlfriend, Amber (Carmen Ejogo) — who gave him the ring in the first place — with all this boyish competitiveness

“Yeah, and a bone is just a bone, until two lions both decide they want it.” It is an answer fraught with significance not only for the film but for life in general. But neither Sam Weisman, who directs, nor Matthew Chapman, who adapted the script from a novel by Donald Westlake, has any further interest in this most interesting observation. As the movie has been conceived and executed entirely as a platform for jokes (most of them, it seemed to me, woefully unfunny) and the patented style of mugging which has made Mr. Lawrence’s career for him, it is happy to pretend to adopt the Lutetia-Amber view that such behavior is childish and immature while nudging and winking at the audience to show its own childishness and immaturity.

“You and me, we both love the game,” says Max to Kevin. “There’s no reason to apologize for that.” But the film itself takes a different view, apologizing for it all over the place with its insincere tributes to female good sense. The ladies, God love ’em. Meanwhile, the game promises to continue with even more allegedly riotous consequences in the end as the billionaire and the thief team up, the latter getting the former out of a spot of trouble with the government by showing up at a press conference in the world’s biggest Afro and engaging in Al Sharpton-like theatrics. In its typically Hollywoodish sense of an ending as much as in its avoidance of the theme of hubris suggested by the title, this is a dishonest picture.

What’s the worst that could happen? We don’t even get close to seeing it here. The worst seems to be having the unembarrassable Max sort of embarrassed half a dozen times by Kevin’s and his pals’ ingenuity in mischief. And after Kevin’s initial arrest for burglary and immediate escape from custody, nothing much bad at all happens to him. All this means an opportunity lost, and lost for what? Bad jokes. Embarrassingly awful jokes, in fact. Among these are the abortively unfunny characters played by such fine actors as Glenne Headly and William Fichtner — as a fortune-telling personal assistant and a gay detective respectively — and some appallingly over-the-top ethnic stereotypes (Arab, German) indulged in by John Leguizamo in the role of Kevin’s sidekick. Larry Miller as Earl Radburn, Max’s head of security is himself a Hollywood stereotype: the ex-CIA or military hard man who is crazy and, not coincidentally, a repressed homosexual. “You’re a crafty bastard, Earl,” says Max at one point.

“Thank you, sir,” replies Earl. “If the boys in the Pentagon had had your faith in me, there’d be a Disney World in Cuba right now.”

If you think this line is screamingly funny you might actually enjoy bits of this movie. Otherwise, probably not.

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