by Tony Dayoub
Released last month on DVD, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, starring Martin Lawrence, is a surprisingly enjoyable and laugh-filled comedy that should find some fans in the post-release market. I sound surprised because I'm not generally a fan of Lawrence's over-the-top humor. Watching his sitcom was like running nails down a chalkboard for me, perhaps because a little of him goes a long way. Here he shares the screen with an astounding cast of actors and comedians, mitigating the amount of screen time he gets, to the benefit of the movie. Credit director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man) for approaching the material with a lighter touch than usual, never allowing the gags to shine at the expense of the central story.
Dr. R.J. Stevens is living the life he's always dreamed of. He has a successful morning talk show, and is about to get married to the sexy, competitive Bianca Kittles (Joy Bryant), winner of the most recent Survivor. Never mind that his young son Jamaal (Damani Roberts) has never met his extended family, living in rural Georgia. Stevens decides to visit them, timing it to coincide with his parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, and a family reunion. The hilarity starts once we realize that R.J., a proponent of the "Team of Me" philosophy he created, turned his back on his life as Roscoe Jenkins, Jr., to escape being picked on by his large, raucous family.
An accomplished cast fills out those roles. James Earl Jones (Clear and Present Danger) and Margaret Avery (The Color Purple) play Papa and Mamma Jenkins. R.J.'s siblings are played by Mo'Nique (The Parkers), Mike Epps (Next Friday), and Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile). Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop) plays his lifelong rival, cousin Clyde. And Nicole Ari Parker (Soul Food) plays former prom queen, Lucinda, the object of Clyde and R.J.'s rivalry. Epps, a great mimic, ad-libs a lot, imitating cartoon character Boo-Boo the Bear to compare R.J.'s multi-colored pants to a picnic cloth. Mo'Nique, demonstrating her disdain for his fame-seeking girlfriend, always comes up with a different name to call her; Binaka, Blanca... anything but Bianca. Jones, Avery, and Parker anchor the story emotionally, never letting the hijinks take over the movie.
I should stop here to single out Duncan's performance. As Sheriff Otis Jenkins, he manages to balance the humor with a more down-to-earth sensibility. Whether quickly reacting to Mo'Nique's hijacking of the podium at the anniversary party with a round of applause to drown her out, or blocking Cedric from interrupting a family moment between R.J. and his parents, Duncan is adept at shifting between comedy and sentimentality with equal aplomb.
Director Lee continues to make small films that capture the African-American experience without feeling the need to tread into politically sensitive areas, or give in to comedic stereotypes. As in his last film, Roll Bounce, he instead focuses on a small microcosm of middle-class black life. In that one, it was seventies-era roller disco culture, and in this one, it is the dichotomy of the African-American professional with the rural upbringing. Lawrence is never quite believable as even a pop psychologist. But if you ignore the particular profession, and just see him as someone who "made it," then it is easy to enjoy the film. At the heart of Lee's film is the conflict that R.J. feels in trying to fit in to society, providing the life he never had to his child, without denying his roots.
Whether played for laughs or not, that is something anyone can relate to.