Wednesday, February 13, 2008

They Stoop to Pander

Another family-reunion comedy for the African American market, with the usual complement of dreary slapstick.

Here’s an audacious hope: that someday there will be an African American comedy that doesn’t resort to noisy slapstick to generate laughs. Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee’s Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, a family-reunion comedy starring Martin Lawrence, could easily have succeeded on its writing and talented comic cast. But, like many movies in this category, it stoops to pander, and the high-decibel mayhem — everything from bloody fistfights to someone getting skunked in the eyes — tends to drown out the funny dialogue.

Lawrence stars as R.J. Stevens, pseudonymous host of a popular L.A. talk show that seems to be a cross between Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil. He enjoys a pampered celebrity lifestyle, along with his model-gorgeous fiancée Bianca (Joy Bryant), whose claim to fame is that she won on Survivor! Their cozy world is upended when R.J., whose real name is Roscoe Jenkins, takes her to his family homestead in small-town Georgia for a celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of his parents (Margaret Avery and James Earl Jones).

The L.A. couple’s nouveau-riche airs don’t impress Roscoe’s down-home relatives, who include muscle-bound brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), the town sheriff; brassy sister Betty (Mo’Nique, whose lively rants are the best thing in the movie); hucksterish family friend Reggie (Mike Epps); and cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer), Roscoe’s lifelong rival for the affections of his father, who raised him after Clyde’s parents died. The trip is fraught with disaster, ranging from lost luggage to the reigniting of Roscoe’s rivalry with Clyde. Roscoe also rekindles his youthful torch for the beautiful Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker), realizes his fiancée is a controlling shrew, and heals his damaged relationship with his father, though it’s never adequately explained why Dad so clearly preferred Clyde to his own son. Lawrence is an unremarkable leading man, but the other players deliver a torrent of fast and funny dialogue that helps lift the movie above its baser tendencies.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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