'Roscoe Jenkins': There's Fun In That Painful Family Party
Friday, February 8, 2008
When it comes to connecting with audiences, Martin Lawrence knows it ain't about the plot.
Five minutes into "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins," you know that's the truth. What really counts -- at least, to his adoring (and critic-proof) audiences -- is the way the jug-eared performer navigates his way through a painfully familiar hell, the kind we all bring upon ourselves. By doing so, Lawrence transforms an otherwise kitschy comedy into something with greater impact -- if it can be measured in snorts of mirthful recognition.
In "Roscoe Jenkins," he achieves this by turning the heat on himself. There he is, right in front of the barbecue, one of the great social hubs of African American culture. That's where the sizzling pork and the neighborhood gossip are laid out, side by side. Where the dirt gets dished. And in the latest film, that's where Roscoe, a narcissistic talk show host who has begrudgingly returned for a family reunion in the sticks, gets his comeuppance.
Full of himself with his modelicious fiancee (Joy Bryant) at his side, he's ripe for a moral lesson, country-style. He gets it good, from an archetypal gallery of Mama 'n' 'em characters, including a long-suffering matriarch (Margaret Avery), a sternly disapproving Papa (James Earl Jones) and the head-shaking sassy Cuz (Mo'Nique), who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to insult or profanity. And then there's his archenemy: the cousin (Cedric the Entertainer) who beat Roscoe at everything when they were boys, including a date with Roscoe's would-be sweetheart (Nicole Ari Parker).
If this all seems groan-inducingly unoriginal, that's part of the point. The recognition factor is crucial to the process. And it's best understood sitting with the right audience, the one talking back to the screen, issuing the "yup's" and "ooooh noo's" and creating a sort of living presence out of the movie. For these viewers, the fun is watching Lawrence squirm, cringe or shudder at the fix he's in, whether he faces a you-know-what whupping from his muscle-bound brother (Michael Clarke Duncan) or blackmail from his conniving sib (Mike Epps), who just saw Roscoe making out with the Other Woman. And then there's the ultimate crowd pleaser, a slapstick encounter between two amorous dogs that you would never see in "My Dog Skip."
Getting into a jam is pretty standard for any character. But Lawrence's figures have a way of making this predicament seem especially painful and, of course, funny. We've seen him do this over and over, as the cross-dressing detective in "Big Momma's House," or the perpetually bickersome narc-partner (to Will Smith) in the "Bad Boys" franchise.
In every role, we have the distinct feeling Lawrence is winking at the audience. He's trying to bring it home, to break down the wall between screen character and human audience. But while this is a successful formula for Lawrence and enjoyable for his ticket-paying devotees, it's also disappointing and unseemly. A wickedly talented comedian, Lawrence has leaned all too easily on the tried and trite. And "Roscoe Jenkins" is another case in point, mere copycatting of the successful comedies built around Mabel Simmons, the fictional Madea played in Tyler Perry's films, and those Klump-centric farces of Eddie Murphy. Imagine if Lawrence were to stretch a little for once, test his flair against some fresh premises. While this could be risky at the box office, it might show him what it's like to take pride in, not just profit out of, his work.
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude, sexual comedy, profanity and drug references.