“B.A.P.S.” (which stands for “Black American Princesses”) is a movie mystery wrapped inside a Hollywood enigma. The mystery is how a film with so many talented people involved - actress Halle Berry (“Losing Isaiah”), actor Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”), director Robert Townsend (“The Five Heartbeats”) - could be so abysmally awful. The enigma is how New Line Cinema thought this cinematic rummage sale was in any shape to be foisted upon an unsuspecting movie-going public.
The film starts out promisingly enough, as we are introduced to Nisi (Berry) and Mickey (Natalie Desselle), two women from Decatur, Ga., who are at a crossroads in their lives. They hate their crummy, lowpaying jobs, have no use for their lazy, shiftless boyfriends, and are worried that all that looms ahead of them are a series of dead ends. They do have a dream, however; to open the first combination soul food restaurant/hair salon and become successful businesswomen.
One day, as she is slinging hash at Bernie Mac’s sleazy diner, Nisi spots a promo on MTV about an open audition for dancers for a music video, that includes a first prize of $10,000. Nisi, who fancies herself quite the creative dancer, decides on the spur of the moment to grab her life savings and head to Los Angeles for the audition and she quickly convinces her good buddy Mickey to come along.
The big joke early on in the film is how grotesque the normally ravishing Halle Berry looks, with platinum hair, a gold tooth and a wardrobe that would make Dennis Rodman cover his eyes. Nisi and Mickey (another bad dresser) also favor hairstyles that are so outrageous, they have to sink down in their seats on the way to L.A. to keep from blocking the in-flight movie.
Once on the West Coast, Nisi fails miserably at the audition (it turns out she is talentless as a dancer), but she is quickly spotted by a smooth-looking guy who tells her that his boss will pay her $10,000 to star in a different music video. The girls accept, and soon find themselves staying at an ornate Beverly Hills mansion.
At this point in the film, the plot gets so ridiculous, only a studio executive could explain it in detail. Nisi’s real assignment, it turns out, involves pulling the wool over the eyes of the elderly owner of the house, Mr. Blakemore (Martin Landau), whose one great love, a servant girl, died years earlier. Nisi is supposed to pretend to be the lost love’s granddaughter. Of course, the real liars are the smooth guy and the evil nephew, who plan to rob the old man blind and pin it on the dimwitted women.
This in itself is a benign-enough idea for a movie, but it is laid out so awkwardly and clumsily, it feels as if Townsend was still figuring it out the day of the shoot. Then, to make matters worse, the tangled plot gets rapidly resolved 60 minutes into the movie, as the bad guys are caught red-handed in the middle of the night. The film is basically over, with another 30 minutes or so to go.
So Townsend fills the time by having Mr. Blakemore and the women (he calls them his B.A.P.S.) go out to discos, restaurants and nightclubs, where the girls embarrass themselves going ga-ga over assorted rap music stars. It goes along like this until the inevitable moment when the old man croaks and leaves lotsa money to the women. But NOT before Nisi confesses the truth about her lineage, and NOT before the Georgia boyfriends show up in L.A. to announce that they really do love them.
“B.A.P.S.” is so incredibly lame, it even manages to squander the immense talents of Ian Richardson, a gifted British stage actor who plays - what else? - the stuffy butler. He does the best he can with the material he’s given, but the talents of Barrymore and Olivier combined couldn’t save this disaster from going under. As for poor Landau, I guess he’s earned a few easy paychecks after decades of working in the trenches.
Berry shows some flair for comedy, especially in the early scenes in Georgia, but the same can’t be said for newcomer Desselle, who looks and acts like she has escaped from a bad 1970s sitcom.
Buried somewhere in this morass, one can sense a modest tale about a good-hearted girl, who in the process of pursuing her dream, realizes that love is the key and that you should act upon your feelings before it’s too late. But this story has been so thoroughly shuffled and dealt, with scenes out of order and patchwork evident at every turn, all it turns out to be is a classic example of how a lot of money and a lot of time can be wasted by a lot of people who should know better.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “B.A.P.S.” Location: North Division Credits: Directed by Robert Townsend, starring Halle Berry, Martin Landeau, Natalie Desselle, Ian Richardson Running time: 2:10 Rating: PG-13