2003, R, 84 min. Directed by George Gallo. Starring Eddie Griffin.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 4, 2003
This is not, as the title suggests, some sort of narrative comedy. This is instead an 84-minute stand-up performance film from comic Griffin that alternates between his onstage routines and cutaway sequences that involve his truly dysfunctional family. Playing for a hometown Atlanta crowd, you’d think Griffin, who managed some truly inspired gags in last year’s Undercover Brother, would shine in the reflected glow of an audience that so clearly loves him. That’s not the case, though – DysFunKtional Family is interminable going, not only because the forward momentum of Griffin’s stand-up is routinely interrupted by annoying side trips to visit his porno-loving uncle or his cringing mom, but also because Griffin’s material just isn’t that funny. Like Richard Pryor (the film is an obvious homage to Pryor’s fantastic 1979 Richard Pryor Live in Concert and its equally devastating follow-up, 1982’s Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip), Griffin comes out swinging the word "nigger" like a lead Louisville Slugger, seeking, as he says, to defang the offensive nature of the original cracker insult by sheer willful repetition. That tactic, however, was old hat when Pryor first used it in the Seventies; it was a common feint, too, back when Lenny Bruce and Shelley Berman LPs outsold popular standards. These days, it’s so commonplace – among African-Americans and the occasional off-white hip-hopper, anyway – as to be part of the status quo. Whether or not such flagrant overuse has achieved its goal is another matter. Griffin is a better actor than a stand-up comedian. Pacing the stage, he plays too much to the audience, dropping easy-to-digest patter in among precious few genuinely original gags (one of which, a clever bit about junkies’ remarkable ability to maintain their balance while deep in the throes of a narcotic fog, uses his whole, slender frame to excellent effect – it’s howlingly funny stuff, but it turns out to be the exception to the rule). Griffin may long to share Richard Pryor’s comic grace, but he forgets that Pryor onstage inhabited his own head more than that of the audience’s, crafting indelible characters out of whole cloth right before your eyes and playing, interacting with them not for the audience’s amusement (or so it seemed) but more for his own. That audiences were lucky enough to be privy to that private, internal theatre of the absurd made Pryor that much more exciting to watch. He was letting us in on something special. Griffin alternately kowtows to what he assumes we want to hear, what he assumes we will find outrageous, but schtick like his backhanded acceptance of gays (anyone who can take it up the ass with a smile deserves props, he says) and one cringe-worthy real-world aside that has him calling a passing man "Osama bin Laden" because he is wearing a kaffiyeh flirts with outright racism. DysFunKtional Family’s real problem is that Griffin’s material just isn’t that funny. The few gags that hit their mark only serve to point up how flaccid the rest of his material is, and that spells doom for a comic, no matter how much his hometown crowd cheers him on.