The old adage about going home again is the springboard of this Martin Lawrence comedy about a successful self-help TV host who reluctantly travels back to his Georgia hometown, along with his young son (Damani Roberts) and his beautiful fiancee Bianca (Joy Bryant), a highly competitive reality show champion, for the fiftieth wedding anniversary of his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery). Roscoe’s reluctance arises from the fact that despite his willingness to advise others about overcoming their problems, he still hasn’t come to terms with his own childhood traumas, centering on the fact that he still feels that Clyde, the cousin his family took in after his parents’ deaths, not only got special treatment from his mom and dad but stole Lucinda, the girl he was infatuated with. As if that weren’t enough, he’s not looking forward to reconnecting with his embarrassing siblings, brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), the local sheriff, and sister Betty (Mo’Nique), a loudmouth but loose Bible thumper, and another cousin, Reggie (Mike Epps), who’s a total hustler.
One might expect that things might turn out better than Roscoe fears, but they don’t. His father is angry with him for not visiting more often, oblivious to his son’s resentment and contemptuous of his career; his lawman brother enjoys harsh (and demeaning) horseplay; his sister is, in fact, a harridan, and Reggie a scoundrel (though supposedly a lovable one). Worst of all, Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer), now a car dealer, shows up for the festivities, greeted by Roscoe’s family as a hero; and he brings along as his date none other than the lovely Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker). Needless to say, that sets off competition between hapless Roscoe, egged on by Bianca, and Clyde—that culminates in a family obstacle course that both men will do anything to win. But the question isn’t just whether Roscoe will finally come to terms with the memories hanging over him from his youth, but whether he’ll wind up with Bianca or Lucinda, reconcile with his father and bond with his own unhappy son.
It will come as no surprise that in the end, things turn out well for our hero. So the movie makes it abundantly clear that Roscoe should have gone home again. Unfortunately, what’s equally apparent is that you shouldn’t go with him. There’s a crudeness to the humor throughout that really comes very close to stereotyping—it’s amazing that the old “Amos ’N Andy” TV program is thought of as demeaning but caricatures like Epps’s Reggie and Mo’Nique’s Betty can somehow be thought of as lovable. And they, along with Lawrence and Cedric (and, to a lesser extent, Duncan and Bryant), mug ferociously. (By contrast, Jones and Parker struggle to maintain their dignity by underplaying, a tactic that protects them only so far.)
But what really puts “Roscoe Jenkins” out of court is the mismanagement of the slapstick violence. That’s something that has to be handled delicately, and on the evidence here, Malcolm D. Lee doesn’t have the touch. In comedies, fights and pratfalls need to be staged so that it doesn’t look as though people are actually suffering. But that’s not the case in this instance. The final obstacle course is bad enough, but even worse is an earlier thrashing Roscoe gets from Betty, which is nasty rather than funny. The most feel-good ending can’t make up for those missteps, nor can the perfectly decent cinematography by Greg Gardiner or the other technical credits, all of them more than adequate.
In its emphasis on family ties “Roscoe Jenkins” has its heart in the right place, and it’s certainly preferable to stuff like Eddie Murphy’s “Norbit” or Cedric’s starring vehicles (like “Johnson Family Vacation,” which tried much the same formula as this film), or even most of Lawrence’s efforts (the “Big Momma’s House” pictures, for instance). But its attempt to meld of crass farce and prefabricated sentiment still makes for a homecoming best avoided.