Martin Lawrence and Mo'Nique throw hilarious punches in Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins
For all the heat they take from critics, and even from audiences when genre-busting and general disregard for the rules of storytelling are significant elements in the appeal of some of the past year’s best movies, there is something to be said for formulas. Because when they work, when the director is alive to the life in the material and when actors receive that material in a spirited, yet relaxed fashion and are allowed individual moments to shine, even the lumpiest gravy can taste like a full home-cooked meal. Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins is lumpy comfort food, to be sure, but it tastes a lot better than the average fare on the family comedy menu. Martin Lawrence is TV talk show host R. J. Stevens, on his way home down South to reunite with his family on the occasion of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Stevens, whose real name is Roscoe Jenkins, was always the odd boy out of his boisterous family’s embrace—he could never live up to the standards of his father (James Earl Jones), for whom he was named. However, he returns to his roots a Hollywood star of sorts, with trophy fiancée Bianca, a ruthless winner on Survivor (Joy Bryant, fearlessly bitchy), dangling from his arm. He also bears a lot of resentment and discomfort, mostly directed at his orphan cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer) who, as a boy, cheated him out of a golden opportunity to capture the love of the senior prom queen, and who brings that grown-up queen (Nicole Ari Parker) along with him to the reunion, one more twist of the knife in Roscoe’s back. Roscoe also has to contend with con artist cousin Reggie (the formidably funny Mike Epps), his older brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), now the sheriff of the small town he never left, and his raucous, eavesdropping, randy sister Betty (Mo’Nique), who takes an instant dislike to his brother’s soon-to-be bride.
Will Roscoe see through his fiancée’s vicious selfishness and find true love in the arms of the caring, yet tough girl he still pines for 20 years later? Will Roscoe and Clyde find time for sideways insults and every other which way to rekindle the compulsive competition that earmarks their relationship? Will Roscoe ease up on his rivalry with Clyde long enough to see how he’s ignoring his own son, whom Bianca relentlessly badgers with her win-at-all-costs attitude? Will Roscoe get the shit kicked out of him by at least two family members and one woodland creature? Well, anyone who can’t see the answers to those questions puttering ten miles down the country road toward Mom and Pop’s gorgeous family home probably hasn’t been to the movies much in the past 50 or 60 years.
Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins is a family romp in which Roscoe’s oddly dysfunctional family delights in taking his big city pretensions to the mat, yet it also wrings plenty of juice from the family's largely cracked caricatures, which I suspect read much less funny than they end up on the screen. Lawrence thankfully sheds the flop sweat that has earmarked nearly every screen performance of his since perhaps Do the Right Thing and in doing so sets the game comic tone for his troupe of able and willing cast mates. Duncan, large and lively, has never seemed so at home in his skin on screen; he’s the good-natured, doting daddy of two mountain-sized kids who routinely calls into comic suspicion whether the undersized Roscoe really belongs to the XL Jenkins clan, but for once he’s not simply used as an awesome physical specimen. He delights in tweaking Roscoe, in tempting his recently vegan-ized brother with some home-cooked ribs; Lawrence’s slightly glazed eyes, not to mention the smear of pork grease on his lips, tell the story of his inability to resist his brother’s honey-glazed jabs. Epps is as nimble as ever as the always-conniving Reggie, who gives his lines gleeful twists of intonation that had me giggling from his first frame. (As Matt Zoller Seitz observed in his New York Times review, Epps gets big mileage out of simply pronouncing the word “Telemundo.”) And here I must confess to a perhaps unreasonable love for Mo’Nique, who has a juicy part to tear into here—the revelation of the dirty secret of her Bible-thumping visits to local prisoners gets this glorious tornado of a performer revolving at top speed. (“Is that Bible-thumpin’ or Bible-humpin’?”, taunts Roscoe, just before the hammer comes down.)
Tasty gravy though it may be, the movie does have its lumps. It goes slack in the laughs, and spikes in the obviousness department, when Roscoe is faced with the choice of helping his son complete a traditional family obstacle course or leaving him behind (at Bianca's loud urging) in order to beat Clyde in the event yet again. Matt also rightly observes that, for a movie centered around a dysfunctional family with a history of profound misunderstandings and feelings of neglect on its calling card, there's a bit too much enjoyment, finally, in the comeuppance Bianca receives at their, and the movie's, hands. But for all of its lessons about family loyalty and acceptance, however reasonably or roughly arrived at, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins rises or falls on his ability to deliver big laughs. Fortunately, writer-director Malcolm D. Lee, whose films include The Best Man and the riotous blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother, knows how to weave rich comedy into a canvas of comfortable familial behavior and rituals that feels, for a good part of the time, lived-in, not Hollywood constructed, comedy that supports the script’s sentimental streak but keeps it tamped down and manageable most of the time. There are no surprises to be had during the running time of Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, unless your resistance is unexpectedly disarmed, like mine was, by the plentiful good humor it holds in store.