Once the funniest and most ubiquitous family in Hollywood, the Wayans siblings — Damon, Keenen Ivory, Kim, Shawn and so on — have largely faded from the scene in recent years, leaving youngest brother Marlon (now nearing 50) to carry the mantle. Audiences may not be showing up for sendups like “Scary Movie” and “Dance Flick” like they used to, but Marlon has figured out a foolproof solution: Make lowbrow laffers with search-friendly titles directly for Netflix, and the checks keep rolling in.
First it was “Naked” — a “Groundhog Day”-style infinite-repeat scenario in which Marlon plays a groom who wakes up au naturel on his wedding day, over and over until he gets it right — and now it’s “Sextuplets,” which is the first thing that pops up when you type “S-E-X” into Netflix (actually, “Riverdale” is the top result, but Wayans’ latest makes the top six). In both cases, lonely viewers looking for something spicy will have to settle for a relatively bland and half-baked comedy, although the point is, Wayans has assured his films won’t get lost amid the streamer’s ocean of content.
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Back in the Wayans’ “In Living Color” heyday, creating hilarious and memorable characters was simply what they did, and now Marlon gets a chance to create half a dozen exaggerated personae, reinventing the sprawling-family dynamic single-handed (his straight-man lead character Alan is pretty much what the actor’s sitcom fans are accustomed to seeing, but there’s a sixth surprise alter ego that makes an appearance near the end). It’s a stunt made possible thanks to significant advances in body-suit prosthetics and CG technology — leaps and bounds since the likes of “White Chicks” and “Little Man” — and an overall slide in quality control where the screenplay is concerned (writing credits are shared by Wayans, longtime producer Rick Alvarez and newbie Mike Glock).
Had they wanted to get creative, they might’ve devised an elaborate backstory to explain how six siblings born on the same day could turn out so differently, à la “Three Identical Strangers” or ’80s Schwarzenegger-DeVito two-hander “Twins,” supplying a certain degree of narrative intrigue in the process. Instead, the setup is simple: Alan was adopted, and now that he and his wife, Marie (Bresha Webb), are expecting, he decides to track down his biological family, leading him to a house where Mom is long gone but a fat-suit version of himself named Russell has been watching reruns of shows like “Mork & Mindy” and “The Rockford Files” all these years.
Hidden under the floorboards Alan finds an article that explains the whole separated-at-birth situation, and so the newly reunited brothers set out to find the four remaining “uplets.” After a none-too-funny and blessedly short road trip — in which director Michael Tiddes (who’s worked his way up from being Alvarez’s assistant) experiments with split-screen tricks, placing Alan and Russell side by side in the same frame — Alan locates his sister Dawn in prison, where this exaggerated stereotype proceeds to steal the show. A finger-snapping, trash-talking ex-exotic dancer with braided hair and fluorescent nails, Dawn is a case for the power of nurture over nature in shaping one’s adult personality.
Frankly, that theme could apply across the board to siblings so motley they hardly seem related. If the remaining personalities were anywhere near as outrageous as the easily aggravated and ultra-quotable Dawn, “Sextuplets” would be a keeper rather than a mere diversion, but none is nearly as amusing as the one-joke concept that seems to have spawned them: Ethan’s a gold-toothed hustler who dresses and talks like a ’70s pimp; Jasper has red hair and a lighter complexion, with a politically incorrect personality to boot; and “Baby Pete” was struck by a case of infantile paralysis (a bad-taste visual punchline where Wayans’ head is grafted onto a body with stunted arms and legs) and needs a kidney — Alan’s, of course.
If you put aside all-CG gimmicks like “The Polar Express” (where visual effects, rather than makeup, make possible seemingly unrecognizable alter egos), audiences haven’t gotten to enjoy this many wildly different characters from a single performer since the Austin Powers franchise. What was novel when Eddie Murphy did it for “The Nutty Professor,” however, feels lazy by comparison here, with hardly enough story to support them, and even though the transformations are impressive, there’s an alarming clumsiness when it comes to Wayans acting against himself. When more than one Marlon appears on screen at the same time, the illusion is ruptured simply by shifting your attention to the character who’s not talking: Eye lines don’t match, the timing is off and reactions feel telegraphed.
Still, by Netflix standards, it’s one of the more amusing originals to be found on the service, and considering the dearth of theatrical comedies to choose from this summer, it’s good enough for what it is. Somehow, the movie manages to incorporate a kidnapping, a car chase and a you-can’t-unsee-it-no-matter-how-much-you-want-to demonstration of Dawn’s pole-dance technique, which will go some distance to console those who stumbled onto “Sextuplets” after searching for something a little more … exotic.