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Family affair

Eddie Griffin's DysFunKtional Family wears thin


If a deck of playing cards stood for the working black comedians of today, Chris Rock's live-wire provocations confirm him as the Ace. Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer's old-school cool earn them their titles as Original Kings of Comedy, while Wanda Sykes is proving herself to be the Queen.

Eddie Griffin, best known for playing the title role in Undercover Brother, is at best a Jack. He has such an ingratiating, sharky grin and such reserves of energy that you'd eagerly let him bend your ear with the latest dirty joke. But his concert film DysFunKtional Family suggests that he only has about 30 minutes of "A-material" before his stand-up routines fall back on being dirty or derivative.

His top-of-the-show riffs on America after Sept. 11 prove pointed and hilarious, such as his suggestion that if we sent over "five Crips, four Bloods and three rednecks," we'd get Osama bin Laden in no time. He talks about feeling for the first time like a racist when he sees "towel-wearing" Arabs at airports and quips, "White people, I understand." And he riffs about the fleeting feeling of national solidarity and fellowship following the World Trade Center attacks: "After 9-11, I was an American. It lasted 30 days." Then, he says, the United States standard operating prejudice returned, and banks went back to rejecting loans for black people.

As the title suggests, Griffin's stories about his childhood and relatives are at the center of DysFunKtional Family. The film cuts between his concert, filmed in his hometown of Kansas City, to video of him visiting his old haunts and a family reunion. His uncles prove to be fascinating personalities. Uncle Curtis is an amateur porn star who shows off his latest videos and snapshots, while Uncle Bucky is a recovering dope fiend and petty criminal who encouraged Griffin to pursue comedy -- and, he admits, never really expected his nephew to succeed.

Griffin attributes the "ass-whuppings" his mother gave him with keeping him out of the penitentiary, saying, "Pain will give you a memory of what not to do." But the film errs in crosscutting between Griffin performing his act and his mother backstage telling the same anecdotes, like the time she chased her son in her car. DysFunKtional Family includes a ruefully funny joke about how you shouldn't beat your kids with a belt because it snaps back in your face, but the editing means we hear the line, from separate sources, three times in a row.

Director George Gallo won't leave Griffin alone, hyperactively switching camera angles or adding music cues, sound effects or photographic tricks to accompany bits like Griffin imitating Uncle Bucky on heroin, or recounting his first experience dropping acid. The attention-deficit filmmaking approach disrupts Griffin's verbal rhythms and undermines his material, although it gets a big laugh when the comic talks about Michael Jackson's ever-changing face and we see Helena Bonham Carter in chimp makeup from Planet of the Apes.

Griffin can be a disarmingly high-spirited performer even when his material reveals a mean streak. He speculates whether any father has ever been proud of a gay son, and describes ugly women as "night fighters" because, after you have sex with them, you fight to get rid of them before seeing them by the light of day. As the film progresses, Griffin gets more raunchy but less witty, extolling praises of oral sex and offering how-to tips for men in the audience. None of his profanely detailed lessons, however, have the uproarious simplicity of Sam Kinison's similar routine: "Lick the alphabet." During one especially explicit moment, the film cuts to his mother looking mortified in the audience.

For his encore, Griffin does some impressions that would have been musty and tame in the Flip Wilson era, like "What if Sammy Davis Jr. worked in McDonald's?" Better had DysFunKtional Family traded such moments for more time with Griffin's truly intriguing relatives. They make up a hilarious full house, while Griffin's regular stand-up material proves far from one of a kind.

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