Leave it to Chris Rock to take a great concept and ensure there's not a single laugh-out-loud moment in the whole film, even with Phil Hartman on board. Surely, I thought, as much as I love rap music and as many times as I've heard references to CB4 in rap songs, that this film would be better, funnier, something. But it wasn't.
I'd love to watch it again now that I have been around a lot of hip hop.
There are some things that have achieved the status of urban legends because any veracity they may have had at some time in the past has faded so far back that, simply, no one knows if they were at one point true. Did John Pershing bury Muslims with pigs as a deterrent in 1911? No one knows any more. Did random crazies ever hand out poisoned candy on Halloween? It may have happened. Was Chris Rock ever actually funny in a feature-length film? I had long thought this, too, would pass into the world of the forever-unverifiable until I uncovered the movie CB4. Which is kind of funny, because back in the day, I owned the soundtrack, but I'd never actually gotten round to seeing the flick itself. In fact, I'd totally forgotten about it until Netflix Streaming told me it was disappearing in a week. No time like the present, I thought, and gave it a go. Chris Rock wrote this? Even stranger, Tamra Davis directed it? And yet all the evidence points to the idea that what should have been some sort of perfect storm of absolute movie suck is one of the nineties' underrated gems.
If you are not familiar with our co-conspirators: Chris Rock is a very, very funny stand-up comic who actually exhibited a flar for dramatic roles (New Jack City, e.g.; this film's funniest scene is Rock parodying one of that film's iconic moments), then tried to get into film comedy. In almost every case, the results have ranged from the terminally stupid (need I mention Pootie Tang?) to the absolutely horrifying (Dogma, perhaps the worst of Kevin Smith's uniformly unwatchable comedies). And then there's former music video director Tamra Davis, who released a string of comedies so bad after this (Billy Madison, Best Men, and Half Baked) that she decided to turn to drama-and ended up making Crossroads, the movie that began, and thankfully ended, the film career of Britney Spears.
CB4, despite being the bumblebee of the film industry, works because it takes the strengths of both of these two people and works them together in a way one wouldn't quite expect them to work. Rock because this is the closest thing to one of his standup routines you can imagine-it's a straight satire on rap culture, with the same kind of rapid-fire delivery Rock (who also co-wrote the script) uses onstage, treading a lot of the same ground. All the screenwriters did was dramatize it. Since it's a rockumentary, a music video director makes perfect sense to helm the thing, but here's where it gets tricky. Did Davis mean to shower quite as much venom on her own profession as she does here, or did she not quite understand what she was getting herself into when she took the project on? Because if you're going to rip on rap culture, ripping on music videos is going to be a big part of that, and from the very first video shoot in the film to the very last, the humor is at its harshest in those scenes. (The second and third funniest scenes in the movie-the clips from the solo videos made by Dead Mike [Allen Payne, who also came up in New Jack City] and Stab Master Arson [Cool As Ice's Deezer D, who the year after this would pick up a fifteen-year gig on the TV show ER].) I don't know the answer to that, but whatever the case, the savagery works, and a very good movie came out of it. And when I say "very good", I mean "this movie is so bulletproof that even the appearance of Chris Elliott can't sink it". (While Chris Elliott has won four Emmys for his writing on Late Night with David Letterman, his career in front of the screen has produced such classics as Cabin Boy and Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps.)
This is not to say it doesn't have its problems, most of which have to do with the movie's pace (which could probably have been streamlined by removing an unnecessary subplot or two). And while Chris Elliott may not have been able to sink the movie, his very appearance in it does cast a dark cloud. But still, this is a very funny movie when it's on its game. Too bad that doesn't happen more regularly here. *** 1/2