Picks and Pans Review: True Identity
Lenny Henry, Frank Langella
The star is appealing. The tone is good-natured. The supporting cast is strong. The only thing wrong with this comedy is that it isn't cutting or funny enough often enough.
Henry, the British-born black comic who has become a major star in his native land, plays a struggling New York City actor who uses whiteface makeup to escape mobster-turned—community leader Langella. (Langella reveals a criminal past to Henry when the plane they're riding in seems about to crash.)
Director Charles (Sidewalk Stories) Lane and writer Andy Breckman seem to pull punches in putting the whitened Henry into situations where racism could be turned into jokes. Henry bristles, for instance, when Langella, mistaking him for a hit man, tells him to kill "the spook"—meaning Henry's black self. But the scene trails off before anything comes of it.
Lane appears onscreen as Henry's best pal, a film makeup man. Andreas Katsulas is funny as Langella's earnest henchman. Anne-Marie Johnson, as an interior decorator who becomes Henry's romantic interest, is effectively tough and vivacious. James Earl Jones plays himself convincingly.
In a small part is Melvin Van Peebles, whose 1970 film Watermelon Man put Godfrey Cambridge in a similar transition, going white to black.
Watermelon Man was a memorable film, if only for its tough-minded attempt to address racism through satire. Unless it is as a footnote in Henry's career, it's unlikely anyone will remember True Identity in 2012. (R)
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