Let’s talk about Regina Hall. Ring a bell? You’d recognize her if you saw her. Not long ago, The Washington Post called her “the best actress you don’t know,” comparing her wild comedic antics to those of the great Lucille Ball. You’re most likely to know her as Brenda, from the Scary Movie franchise: Brenda whose down-low boyfriend (Shawn Wayans) got ear-fucked at a movie theater glory hole; Brenda who yapped so loudly in a theater screening Shakespeare in Love that the angry white suburbanites stabbed her to death. Maybe you also know her from the black romantic comedy About Last Night, where she and Kevin Hart rock-paper-scissor’d over who’d get to be on bottom (read: who’d get to just, you know, lie there) during sex. Or you might know her from any of the other 40-and-change roles she’s had in profitable, if frequently terrible, movies over the years.
So, good for her for landing a starring role — a breakthrough dramatic turn, no less — in this weekend’s no. 2 movie, When the Bough Breaks. But oh, gosh — the movie. When the bough broke, the cradle rocked, and all we have to show for it is this? Nevermind that it’s bad. Plenty of greatly enjoyable movies are ultimately bad; as a Gravity defender, I make peace with this truth daily. But When the Bough Breaks is bad for not daring to be worse; it’s bad for trying to wipe its hands clean of the dirt that might have made it halfway exciting to watch. It’s a “crazy bitch” plot with Extra Pulp: surrogate mama drama, cat-murder, Michael K. Williams. There’s a woman who murmurs self-help mantras to herself after killing a guy (“I am happy. I am in control of my life. I feel the joy of pure love”). There’s dialogue like: “I’m the brains. You’re just the uterus.” There’s a cat named Miss Havisham — what I’m saying is, it’s plain-bad camp, teetering on the edge of self-aware but never quite getting there.
That’s sort of the problem with this tier of movie. It’s too earnest to enjoy making fun of, but someone ought to, and you can’t depend on it to make fun of itself. Where does that leave you? When the Bough Breaks is about respectable upper-middle-class blacks with nondescript names like “John Taylor” and “Todd Decker” who keep Lana Del Rey on vinyl. (Colorblind casting is great; but once everyone’s hired, and you’ve earned your so-called brownie points, can’t I get at least one name changed to Darius or Keisha?) The Taylors, played by Hall and Morris Chestnut, get tangled up with a crazed twentysomething who signs up to be their surrogate mom and then, you know, does what her archetype does. You feel the movie wanting to be that (typically) profitable black middlebrow thriller — like last year’s successful The Perfect Guy — and it gets there, box-office–wise, but with material just lively enough to make you wish someone a little more perverse had gotten their hands on it. A black Brian De Palma, maybe, or a cinematic Shonda Rhimes. Someone oddball enough to see that a scene wherein a crazed pregnant woman beats a grown man’s ass is something worth milking for every bit of naughty irony it can offer. I’d settle for Lee Daniels, even; sometime around the moment Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron in The Paperboy, Daniels proved himself worthy of projects like this.
Actually, I can’t think of too many other movies of this bent that can take a joke, which isn’t to say seriousness is any better. A sense of humor is the difference between a camp-friendly movie like Fatal Attraction and, well, most other movies of its kind. And it’s the difference between this movie and the version I’d run to see: the Regina Hall parody, with bigger hair, more self-awareness, and less actual giving a fuck. That could be her dramatic lane, rather than playing it straight: Her career has already set her up for the kind of knowingly over-the-top acting being perfected on television by the likes of Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and, on American Horror Story, Angela Bassett. Hall’s advantage over these actresses is that she’s a raucous comic talent — she could have done Bridesmaids or Ghostbusters. Her spontaneous foolery during the press rounds for About Last Night was alone comparable to anything in those movies — funnier and more shocking than much of what passes for improv nowadays. Now, give us drama that makes use of that talent. Give us a When the Bough Breaks with smarter direction. Hall deserves to glo up, Shondaland-style, not to get a downgrade like this.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Marlon Wayans as Regina Hall’s boyfriend in Scary Movie. Shawn Wayans played her boyfriend in the film.