In 2012, Channing Tatum cemented his position as a Hollywood A-Lister with a number of versatile roles in blockbusters that, more or less, heavily capitalized on his physicality. Obviously there was the obvious sexuality of “Magic Mike,” but there was also the commanding romantic desperation at the heart of “The Vow.” More strikingly was his rubbery turn in “21 Jump Street,” where the meatheaded actor properly utilized his thick, tight, hunky frame for the sake of elaborate slapstick comedy, creating laughs while utilizing a specific Female Gaze that both objectified him but made him also appealing to male viewers: lithe and sexual, he was still aggressive and mobile enough to be exciting to watch for the male demographic hoping for the elaborate physical shenanigans that make up most of the laughs in “21 Jump Street.”
That seems to have carried over to Tatum’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra” co-star Marlon Wayans, who never misses an opportunity in his new comedy “A Haunted House” to wring laughs out of situations that sexually objectify his frame. Wayans is perhaps the most conventionally handsome of the prolific Wayans brood, though it took the action figure remodeling of the “G.I. Joe” blockbuster to allow him to grow into his frame, from the boyish merry-maker of joke-fests like “Scary Movie” and embarrassing lowlights like his Yes-Massuh sidekick part in “Dungeons and Dragons” to genuine leading-man territory. Without the specter of forming a Ying to brother Shawn’s Yang, and with no other Wayans family members behind the camera, Marlon is free to portray what he, as co-writer, perceives as an alpha male. In this specific case, it means a frequently-unclothed sex maniac, a played-for-laughs conceit that never mocks the idea of a man as attractive, but rather that his personality provides the laughs. There’s almost the sensation when his buff frame is straddling a stuffed animal in a series of sexual postures that, while a cheap laugh, it’s also meant to be genuinely titillating. Mr. Tatum, take notes.
“A Haunted House” begins with Marlon’s everyday-joe Malcolm allowing his girlfriend to move in with him, an arrangement that allows the plot to distinctively mirror the storyline of the “Paranormal Activity” movies. His restless desire to document everything is, weirdly, an attempt to ground the film in an emotional truth that seems to interfere with the satirical elements. Half the time, “A Haunted House” is weirdly sincere about mimicking the plot dynamics of those films, where a spirit slowly starts causing trouble by throwing silverware and breaking furniture, testing the boundaries between the couple.
“A Haunted House” wrings a few pointed laughs out of this premise. As if fulfilling Eddie Murphy’s 1980’s standup bit about black families immediately fleeing from spirits, Malcolm’s first decision is to bolt. A follow-up demonstrates the tragedy of a homeowner not attracting near-market value in a recession marketplace. But most of the film is merely an excuse to let some ringers run amok. Nick Swarsdon is typically teeth-grindingly obnoxious as a gay, sexually-predatory psychic; more amusing is the racist security guard brought to life by David Koechner, who eventually drops the innuendo and begs Malcolm for the freedom to use the “n-word.” Stealing most of his screentime in a third act subplot is Cedric The Entertainer, maybe the most accomplished pro in this case. He almost grabs the film by the hand as he goes over exorcism protocol when one subplot delves into toothlessly parodying “The Devil Inside.”
But “A Haunted House” ultimately falls upon the shoulders of Wayans, who doesn’t seem like he’s joking when he plays the straight man to a number of weirdly-effective scare scenes. His mugging and comedic timing remains at a heavy professional level, but he’s more amusing when asked to show chemistry with the cast, striking up a natural back-and-forth with significant other Keisha (Essence Atkins). There’s a layer of misogyny to the film’s recognition of Malcolm and its alienation towards his girlfriend, who is proven to be mostly incompetent, flatulent and sexually carnivorous. But beyond that, the chemistry between the two actors is surprisingly authentic and lived-in.
The problem with “A Haunted House” is that mocking the found footage genre doesn’t provide fruit. Wayans and company have made a parody that sticks close to the footage of those films, spotlighting both their ghostly end-of-the-screen threats, but also the tedium implicit in such films. You can get by with the charisma of Wayans and Atkins, for example, but after a while, their quarrels about moving in together feel like filler for the main event, and extended rants between the two of them veer from sweet to trying to draw this out for a full runtime. Other opportunities are squandered; the idea of Keisha’s “gangsta” relatives arriving at the house pretending to be “hard” has an all-too-predictable punchline. The film similarly boxes itself in when it feels the need to mimic the third-act occurrences of “Paranormal Activity” when it’s obvious that improv had the film going in an entirely less predictable direction, clearly pointing out the fallacy of “A Haunted House”: you can’t parody something and also try to emulate it as well. [C]