In the growing list of potentially humorous backdrops, the African-American family reunion is rapidly becoming an overused archetype. Everyone from Tyler Perry to Red Grant has utilized the setting for their combination of slapstick and cultural satire. Granted, it gives a filmmaker ample opportunity to splatter a broad spectrum of larger-than-life personalities onto an equally oversized and recognizable canvas, but the tendency toward stereotypes and sentimentality often ruins the insights. At first glance, it appears that the new ensemble comedy Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins will fall into that same clichéd category. But looks, as we all know, can be very deceiving indeed.
Having abandoned his Deep South roots for big city fame, Roscoe Jenkins (Martin Lawrence) is now Dr. R.J. Stevens, TV self help guru, media mogul, and fiancé to supermodel Survivor winner Bianca Kittles (Joy Bryant). When his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery) announce a family reunion for their 50th wedding anniversary, Roscoe is reluctant to go. Seems he still carries sour memories of life with siblings Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), Betty (Mo'nique), and adopted "cousin" Clyde (Cedric The Entertainer). Guilt eventually brings him back home, and after nine long years, things haven't changed much. The same old rivalries exist, his father remains aloof and critical, cousin Reggie (Michael Epps) is a no-good hustler, and high school crush Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker) is as hot as ever. It will be a trying four days -- if he survives that long.
Funny, inviting, and just a wee bit over the top, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a delightful surprise. It offers up an amazing cast, a consistent level of laughs, and enough homespun heart to get us over the calculated, cartoonish bits. With its combination of seasoned stand-ups (including lead Lawrence), accomplished actors, and languid local color, writer/director Malcolm Lee has crafted a warm and wicked dysfunctional hoedown. Keeping such high profile personalities as Mo'Nique and Cedric in check, while giving ample time to supporting players like Duncan, should earn this filmmaker some level of kudos. But Lee takes it one step further, merging several levels of talent into an enjoyable amalgamation of the nostalgic, the nutty, and the nasty.
It's safe to say that Lawrence has never been better, holding down the center of the film with his little-man-lost performance. Even when going toe to toe with Jones and Avery, he's excellent. Similarly, the muscled Duncan is as strong as he is sensitive, his local sheriff character never taking kindly to having his kids called fat. As for the rapid fire riffers, our big and beautiful diva Mo matches the debonair and dapper Entertainer one-liner for one-liner. But it's Epps that singlehandedly steals the film. Every time he's on screen, his stream of consciousness comebacks and dead-on pop culture comparisons are guaranteed side splitters.
But Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is more than just a by-the-numbers, countrified urban romp. Lee's ear for smart dialogue never lets him down, and when the physical shtick grows worn-out and exaggerated (the last act obstacle course race between Lawrence and Cedric definitely drags on a bit too long), he manages to balance it all. Even the unrequited love story subplot between Roscoe and Lucinda earns our respect, handled in a mature, meaningful fashion. Viewers expecting nothing but wall to wall raunch will be disappointed at the PG-13 "home is where the heart is" angle. But for anyone wondering where the well-made, expertly-acted comedy went to, Roscoe Jenkins is a "welcome" return for the cinematic form.
He's back, baby!