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SINBAD'S MAGIC TOUCH

How's this for high concept? Hip, dreamy black dude from the Pittsburgh 'hood evades loan sharks by passing himself off as square suburban businessman's long-lost childhood buddy. Despite cultural clashes and comic missteps at the country club, impostor and entire dysfunctional family of white folks wind up friends.

Bingo. Ring that formula bell. This is the kind of vehicle that Richard Pryor in his prime would have kicked straight into high gear, the kind Eddie Murphy can still thrash to within an inch of its life. But the star of Houseguest is TV comic Sinbad, and he handles his big-screen chores with aplomb.

The king-sized ex-basketball player shows superb comic timing in a series of fish-out-of-water bits that might seem awfully familiar without him. While holed up at straight-man Phil Hartman's house, eternal optimist Kevin Franklin not only has to fool his host, he must fake his way through eighteen holes of golf, pretend he's a wine connoisseur, speak in a couple of languages he's never heard of and perform some complicated dental surgery.

Is our man up to it? What do you think? Kevin has been on the short end of many get-rich-quick schemes, but his street smarts serve him well out in tony, white Sewickley: In this sweet-tempered fantasy, he winds up everyone's main man.

You won't find director Randy Miller's picture around on Oscar night, but the chemistry between the energetic Sinbad and the buttoned-up Saturday Night Live stalwart works beautifully. Kevin has financial problems, and Hartman's Gary Young can't keep his family happy, but ever the twain shall meet. Each guy learns from the other one, and by the time the charade is exposed, nobody is throwing stones. There's a wacky, feel-good quality to this humble little movie that grander attempts at screwball comedy lack. It's so loose-limbed and relaxed that we never know what will burst into flower next.

Sinbad dominates, but the supporting cast is fine, too, notably Kim Griest as Hartman's stressed-out wife, Chauncey Leopardi and Talia Seider as his troubled kids and Jeffrey Jones as a goofy oral surgeon who grows suspicious about the identity of his friend's new houseguest.

There's no point delving much deeper into the script of ex-TV writers Michael J. Di Gaetano and Lawrence Gay, but if you're shopping for more, you might find the hint of an old, true story--the one about African-Americans having to live a double life in a hostile world and the misunderstandings that take root in the comfort of the white suburbs. Below the movie's laughter, such matters nudge us gently but unmistakably.

 
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