“Modern Problems” is a lousy Chevy Chase movie from 1981. But I saw it on HBO when I was 7 or 8, and whenever it was on, I would watch it. So its lousiness is separate from its being memorable. What I remember especially well is the end.
And the reason I’m remembering it now is that I just saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s white face between the full brown legs of Gabourey Sidibe, playing a South African hotel maid in “The Brothers Grimsby.” Neither movie has much to do with the other, aside from their both being bad, and — well, aside from this one other thing involving black women. And the one thing is a doozy.
First, though, the plot of the Chase movie: An air traffic controller named Max (Mr. Chase) acquires telekinesis when a truck dumps cartoonish nuclear waste on him. Not much happens until the last quarter when Max, an ex-girlfriend, a former wife and her new beau all wind up at the beau’s beach home, where lunacy awaits.
Joining them is the author of such best sellers as “Get Behind Me and Stay There.” He is such a 1980s chauvinist ass that he could be played only by Dabney Coleman, and he’s got designs on Max’s ex-girlfriend, Darcy (Patti D’Arbanville). The beau’s place looks like the Victorian manse from Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad.” But radioactive Max gets a load of it and just sees the Bates Motel.
The house has a maid — sorry, the house has a movie maid. She’s black. She’s round. She’s sassy. She wears beaded plaits and a uniform. And, lest we missed any of that, she’s also named Dorita. Allegedly, she hails from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but the way Nell Carter twangs her way through the part, the movie must mean Port-au-Prince, Alabama.
Max’s arrival trips Dorita’s voodoo wire. “According to these chicken guts,” she says, one hand clutching raw innards, “there’s going to be an awfully big ruckus here this weekend.”
She’s right. That ruckus takes up the movie’s last 15 minutes. Max levitates Mr. Coleman’s character over the dinner table, spins him rotisserie-style, and drops him so that his face lands in a cake. (Mr. Coleman’s chagrined dismount, which takes with him a tray of food and a glass of wine, is the funniest thing in the movie.) Max heads upstairs to Dorita’s room, where she attempts an exasperated exorcism. (“I better do this,” she says, her face obscured by the steam of a boiling pot. “Damn doctor come here, do it all wrong. Piss off the demon and blow us to white man’s hell.”)
She makes a fist, and tries tough talk on Max’s demon: “These is knuckles you is looking at.” But it doesn’t work. Her powerlessness sets the stage for what I most remember about this movie. After Dorita flashes her fist, Max, who’s fully possessed, prone and afloat, slowly turns his head toward her and says, in the voice of black evil, “Yo momma.”
Ms. Carter then spreads some “demon powder” on the floor as she shuffles and taps her way around the bed: “He touch that, he dead.” A special effect slides Max along the floor as he snorts the powder up like a vacuum. Then he telekinetically shoots Mr. Coleman’s character up through the ceiling and makes Dorita hang upside down from it.
But that’s not what’s depressing. Well, it is. The whole movie is sloppy and incoherent and slow, in a way that lots of nominal comedies were in the early 1980s. This one is proudly anti-cinematic, too, as if a couple of “Animal House” fans saw Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist bourgeoisie takedowns and said, “We could totally do that.” But Ms. Carter keeps reanimating her stereotype. The movie’s bankrupt idea of farce is just generous enough to make room for her. The plot can’t function unless Dorita does.
But the doozy is how the movie can’t think of her beyond the confines of racist servitude. In the last minutes, Max threatens to throw himself from the roof. But his ex, Darcy, climbs up and pledges her love. They embrace, then lightning strikes the giant antenna next to them.
Dorita, meanwhile, is packing a suitcase, harrumphing away, when bolts of green animation pass from the antenna to the TV she’s watching, leaping out of the screen and knocking her over. All you see are her glowing feet protruding from an upturned chair, her hands gesticulating from the bottom of the screen. A scene or two before the closing credits start, with the camera still on the chair, we hear Dorita say, “They did it to me again.”
They sure did.
And watching the way Mr. Cohen’s movie treats Ms. Sidibe, they keep on doing it, too. “The Brothers Grimsby” is an action-comedy — allegedly — with Mr. Cohen playing Nobby, a numbskull soccer hooligan turned killer spy. The scenes with Ms. Sidibe are few. The plot lands him at a South African resort that employs the maid she’s playing, Banu. The joke is both that Nobby must seduce a stranger in a green uniform and that he has a thing for big women. (Rebel Wilson has a few scenes as Mrs. Nobby). He enters the hotel and makes lusty faces as the camera moves toward a skinny white blonde wearing green, then passes her for a shot of Nobby’s target: Ms. Sidibe, who’s dark-skinned, round and also in green. That other lady is just her boss.
A toilet clog brings the boss to Nobby’s cottage and then Banu appears. The conceit gets a dreary workout when he assumes the blonde is there for the unclogging and the black woman is his object for sex. The boss walks into the bedroom and, to her horror — and the audience’s (at least the one I was with) — finds Nobby’s face in Banu’s rear.
Why compare these movies? “Modern Problems” is 35 years old. Who even remembers it? And will anyone remember “The Brothers Grimsby” in three weeks, let alone three decades? Besides, Mr. Cohen made a male version of this joke in “Borat” with the corpulence of Ken Davitian.
Moreover, “Grimsby” also features, among other foulness, two airborne-H.I.V.-infection gags and an elephant ejaculating all over two men who’ve climbed into the vagina of a different elephant. (Don’t ask.) So the treatment of Ms. Sidibe’s behind should be considered an act of ardor. Maybe. But a body is all she is. And the comedy here needs you to understand that only someone as stupid as Nobby would commit this kind of racial-sexual dyslexia.
Those 35 years do also matter in that they don’t. When Ms. Carter played Dorita, she was a Tony winner for “Ain’t Misbehavin’” who could razzle and dazzle. The closest she comes to that in “Modern Problems” is her dance around the bed. The movie construes her stage magic as voodoo. Ms. Carter’s life was full of up and downs. (She died in 2003 at 54 of heart disease.) But things looked up for her in the 1980s. She spent six seasons as the star of the NBC sitcom “Gimme a Break!,” where, playing a character named Nell, she took care of the daughters of a widowed white cop and earned two Emmy nominations for it.
Ms. Sidibe is less accomplished, but making her debut in the deeply traumatized title role in the film “Precious” won her an Oscar nomination. Ever since, it’s been tiny movie parts and slightly better TV roles. (This is at least the second time she has played a maid.) Part of the problem is the lookism of casting. But when that lookism meets racism, bad news get worse.