Somewhere inside Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins -- buried in frenzied improvisations and manic mugging, adrift in a sea of easy sentiment and familiar family-drama moments -- there's a kernel of a good idea, as successful L.A. self-help guru Dr. R.J. Stevens (Martin Lawrence) comes back home to the South for a family celebration. R.J.'s got it all -- the syndicated, Montel-styled talk show, the beautiful fiancée, the Hollywood good life -- but that doesn't seem to impress the family he hasn't seen in 9 years, who know him as Roscoe Jenkins. Much like Dan in Real Life, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins puts a self-help expert who is in desperate need of help for himself into the middle of a sprawling, squalling family, and that environment makes the distance between the persona and the person readily, painfully apparent. And, much like Dan in Real Life, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins skims the surface of that idea, scooping up a few laughs and a bit of drama, but it never digs too far below that, or really engages with the central plot.
Part of the problem -- or, rather, the biggest factor that keeps the film from working -- is that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, written and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, literally has too much of some very good things. Lee's filled the film with a dream team of supporting comedic performers, but he can't make them work as comedic actors. When Roscoe arrives in his family's home town for his parent's 50th anniversary, we're introduced in short order to Roscoe's hustling cousin Reggie (Mike Epps), his brash sister Betty (Mo'Nique) and his self-made, self-satisfied cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer). All of these performers (like Lawrence) are easy to watch, and can certainly riff off any scene; the problem is that they riff so hard, and so long, that the improvisation undermines the actual movie. There's a very real contrast between the film's scenes with Reggie, Betty and Clyde and the scenes with Roscoe's big brother Otis (Michael Clark Duncan) or Roscoe's mother and father (Margaret Avery and James Earl Jones). Duncan, Avery and Jones know that they're in a movie, and that there's a story to be moved along so that Roscoe can learn about the things that truly matter. But Epps, Mo'Nique and Cedric the Entertainer take the reins of every scene they're in and pretty much run them off the road, so that Roscoe's journey is interrupted by long, loud pit stops as Epps, Mo'Nique and Cedric the Entertainer can be who they are instead of playing their characters.
And Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is also fairly obvious -- which is hardly ruinous, but certainly doesn't help. Roscoe's fiancée Bianca (Joy Bryant) is presented from the outset as a robotic uber-achiever -- it's explained she won Survivor, and it's fairly obvious that she's brought the kill-or-be-killed spirit of the program back to civilization. So when Roscoe is told that Clyde's bringing a date to the anniversary, Roscoe's childhood crush Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker), it's guaranteed that Lucinda will be everything that Bianca is not, and that at some point, Roscoe will trade his grasping, fierce fiancée in for true love. Roscoe's also traveling with his son, Jamaal (Damani Roberts), who's been shoved to the side as Roscoe's career has taken off; we know that Roscoe and Jamal will re-connect, but the film never really digs into what's under that wound, and how it might really be healed.
And before it's suggested that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins was made for an African-American audience and not for my sensibilities, let me smack the stereotypes and sloppy logic inherent in that suggestion down right now. I may have grown up Italian-Canadian, not African-American, but a family reunion is a family reunion -- the crush and rush of too-familiar faces, the struggle to be the adult you are in the face of people's memories of the kid you were, the long, loud meals where you swallow thousands of calories and thousands of feelings. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins speaks to that experience, but those whispers of emotional catharsis and connection are drowned out by shouting and indulgent run-on comedy bits.
There are a few laughs in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins -- they're few and far between, but they're there. Reggie writes Roscoe's program off as being a carnival of " ... midgets (and) ... neglected albino children. ..." Re-hashing a childhood bet that Clyde failed to keep, Roscoe whips off a great, funny ground-level grammar joke that has to do with new readings of the word "renege." Otis, who's gown up to be a small-town sheriff, notes that his task is "To serve and protect .... and occasionally whup ass." It's hardly a fresh joke, but Duncan -- who gives what may be the most rounded performance in the movie -- makes it fresh and fun. And there are occasional dramatic moments that succeed, as well; Lee's script understands how it's easy to hear disapproval in your father's tone of voice, especially when the tone is coming from James Earl Jones. And Lawrence -- who knows a little something about how success can come and go firsthand, with his record paychecks dwindling in recent years -- brings a little bit of that personal experience to Roscoe's laments, noting how his show gives him something his life didn't: "I get in front of that camera and the crowd feels me ... more than my family ever did."
If Lee had actually directed his performers -- modulated their work, called 'cut' when the wackiness overwhelmed the storyline, trimmed some of the loopy extended bits that Epps, Mo'Nique and Cedric the Entertainer go on -- Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins probably would have been a better movie. But frantic flailing isn't consistent forward motion. And I actually walked out of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins with questions -- What exactly is Lawrence's character a doctor of? Where is Jamaal's mother, and why is she so completely absent? -- and while these aren't exactly vital information, they're the sort of facts and ideas that a more fully-rounded movie could have turned into laughs and drama, not simply left as dangling threads. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins closes with an extended sequence playing over the credits, as Roscoe's family appears on his show; it's more motor-mouthed, meaningless jokey-joke material from Lawrence, Epps, Cedric the Entertainer and Mo'Nique, and it climaxes with Lawrence looking dead into the camera and saying "That's the thing about family; unpredictable, but entertaining -- and we love 'em." It's one thing to sum up your movie in the final moments; it's another to rub it in our faces because you're not sure we caught it the first time around. Malcolm D. Lee's made better movies than Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, and they're better because they had consistent feels and approaches -- The Best Man, which worked as a comedy-drama about real people, and Undercover Brother, which worked as a flailing, frantic, anything-goes laughfest. Somewhere along the line, Lee never made a firm choice as to what kind of movie Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins was going to be, and the schizophrenic split between funnybone-tickling comedy and heart-warming drama running through the movie means that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins doesn't succeed as either.