Everybody starts somewhere. “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” marked the big-screen debut in 1996 of the Wayans brothers, along with their sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandmammas.
The movie stars Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Craig Wayans, Kim Wayans, Damien Wayans, and, if I’m not mistaken, the family dog, Rover Wayans. Like most of their earlier work on TV (“In Living Color”) and later work for the screen (“Scary Movie,” “White Chicks”), “Don’t Be a Menace” is a spoof, and a fairly unsubtle one, of films like “Menace II Society,” “South Central,” “Juice,” and “Boyz n in the Hood.” It helps if you’ve seen the things parodied, but even if you haven’t seen them, the movie’s humor is so broad you can’t miss the jokes one way or another.
Presumably in honor of the film’s ninth anniversary, (?), Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment have re-released it in a new Collector’s Series Unrated Special Edition. The “Unrated” part means that the studio has added a few alternate takes, additions, and substitutions, although the results are not much different from the raunchy R-rated version that played in theaters and was originally issued on DVD a few years earlier. The “Special Edition” part means that the studio tagged on a couple of bonus items.
“Don’t Be a Menace” was directed by Paris Barclay, a fellow whose work before and since has been almost exclusively in television; and it shows. The story line, written by the Wayans and Phil Beauman, is so thin it’s almost nonexistent, no more than a series of skits parading as a plot, and Barclay does little to inject any life into things. Instead, the movie relies on extreme exaggeration, grossness, silliness, profanity, and slapstick to evoke laughs. On occasion it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t.
The Wayans preface their film with the kind of remark that ushers in the horseplay to follow: “One out of every ten black males will be forced to sit through at least one ‘growing up in the hood’ movie in their lifetime. At least one in five will be shot in the theater while watching the movie.”
Shawn Wayans plays Ashtray, who narrates the story and tells us what it’s really like to live in the hood. When we first meet him, he’s moving back with his father after living most of his life with his mom. It’s these first moments of the film that show the most promise, promise that, alas, never pays off. Mocking the Hollywood tradition of actors in their mid twenties playing teenagers, Shawn Wayans at twenty-five or so plays a teen. His mom and dad are both younger than he is, a situation exploiting both Hollywood casting and teenage pregnancies. There’s also a nice piece of business with autumn leaves falling while the mom is delivering her farewell speech to young Tray, the leaves eventually inundating the scene.
The jokes in the film follow a typical “Mad” magazine or “Airplane” approach, but the Wayans being the Wayans throw in a lot more sex, nudity, profanity, and crudity to ensure getting our attention. Well, they do get our attention; it’s holding our attention that’s the hard part. Some cutest bits are throwaway jokes: the ghetto folk eat “Tricks” and “Weedies” for breakfast, and they drink “Menace 800” malt liqueur.
Once Tray hooks up with his dad, he goes across the street to say hello to his cousin Loc Dog (Marlon Wayans), and that’s where the story line actually starts, and the movie begins to go downhill–fast. The fact is, Marlon Wayans is far too much the clown for a parody like this to work. He’s always mugging, always over the top, as evidenced by his photo on the keep case. Parody works best when it’s done straight. Marlon Wayans doesn’t seem capable of doing anything straight.
Anyway, Loc Dog’s biggest problem, besides being a complete idiot and braiding his armpits, is trying to decide which gun to wear with which athletic shoes. He’s got a complete arsenal in his bedroom and a guided missile in his truck. “I love the smell of gunpowder in the morning.”
Others in the supporting include brother Keenen Ivory Wayans as a postman who wanders through the picture shouting “Message” every time things get serious; Tracey Cherelle Jones as Dashiki, Tray’s new, young girlfriend, who has seven kids by different fathers. “Now, children, what do you say when you meet a nice man?” she asks when introducing the kids to Tray. And the answer is obviously, “Are you my daddy?”
In addition, there’s a tough, old, foulmouthed grandma (Helen Martin), who smokes pot; there’s a rival for Dashiki’s affections, Toothpick (Darrell Heath), just out of prison; there’s a Malcolm X type character, Preach (Chris Spencer), more interested in white girls than the plight of the black man he so espouses; and there are various other stereotypical send-ups.
Everything we would expect to see satirized in a black coming-of-age tale finds its way into the movie: guns, crime, booze, drugs, sex, poverty, laziness, welfare, homelessness, foul language, convenience store holdups, drive-by shootings, reactionaries, revolutionaries, gospel music, rap music, break dancing, racist cops, gang wars, the list goes on.
So, it isn’t that “Don’t Be a Menace” lacks ideas to lampoon. It’s just that the Wayans use a sledgehammer to drive in a thumbtack. They bludgeon us with so much smut, we’re senseless to their humor within minutes. Rated or unrated, “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central” is itself the only menace involved, a menace to any audience looking for more than a couple of honest laughs in the movie’s eighty-nine minutes running time.
Buena Vista continue with reckless abandon transferring their movies to disc at a high bit rate for the best possible picture quality. I’m sure the result here is about as good as it can be short of high definition. Seems almost a waste. The anamorphic screen size measures almost the same ratio as a 16×9 TV, and the image produced is bright and clear. The video is excellent, in fact, vivid, alive with color, and often sharply defined. Sometimes, however, the darker areas get a touch obscure, blurring detail, but it’s a minor point.
The disc’s soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo remaster, with little information in the rear channels. You’ll have to rely on your audio system’s surround-enhancement mechanism to put any sound at all into the sides or rear. Other than that, the front channels produce a wide sound stage; a huge, thumping bass; and a strong transient response, with solid impact.
This Unrated Special Edition really hasn’t a lot going for it compared to many other special editions. The picture quality is better here than in its first DVD release, and that’s a pleasure. Plus, there are now a half a dozen “unrated” scenes with added or alternate material in them. You’ll find these scenes distinctly marked in the scene selections with an “unrated” label. They aren’t necessarily more coarse or vulgar than anything else in the movie, though. Then, among the extras there is one deleted scene, about two minutes long, “The Interrogation,” shown in fullscreen; a three-minute featurette called “The Wayans Brothers Behind-the-Scenes”; and a four-minute segment called “Hood Movie Gumbo,” the latter two items made as promotional materials at the time of the movie’s production.
Other than that, there are twenty-eight scene selections, plus a chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
“Don’t Be a Menace to South Central” tries hard, but the jokes are too trite and too crude to make for many laughs. The gags become tedious and redundant by the movie’s second half, diluted from overuse. Nevertheless, the Wayans clearly know their audience better than I do and understand that you can never be too gross or too outrageous for some viewers. Still, playing to the lowest common denominator among the viewing public doesn’t necessarily make for the best possible movies.