Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

On the surface, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is just another Martin Lawrence comedy, filled with slapstick, crude sexual shenanigans, and cruelty to animals. But, looking a little deeper, one discovers a surprisingly dark undercurrent. There's a poorly realized serious subtext to this otherwise mindless comedy - something about the dysfunction that can lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly happy family and how a father doesn't have to hurl epithets to be guilty of emotional abuse. Withholding affection and respect can be equally as devastating. For much of its running time, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins juggles (with less than unqualified success) the dramatic and jocular while the tone veers unevenly. This unevenness catches up to director Malcolm D. Lee at the end with a series of concluding scenes that are awkward because of the artificiality necessary to wrap up everything without the consideration of consequences.

If the idea of watching Martin Lawrence getting used and abused appeals to you, then Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is the movie for you. Nearly everyone gets a crack at Lawrence, even a skunk. He becomes involved in two full-scale brawls. The first is with Mo'Nique, who plays his sister, Betty. The second is with Cedric the Entertainer, who is his cousin, Clyde. There's also a sex scene with Joy Bryant that could be considered a third bout. When it's over, he's immobile and she hops off the bed and onto a treadmill.

Lawrence plays R.J. Stevens, a black Jerry Springer whose TV show is a daytime sensation. He's engaged to the ultra-competitive Survivor winner, Bianca (Bryant), whose motto in "win at all costs." R.J. also has a young son from a previous relationship. He has changed his name and done his best to distance himself from his origins but, on the occasion of his parents' 50th wedding anniversary, R.J. brings Bianca home to meet the clan. The weekend starts poorly and goes downhill from there. R.J.'s dad (James Earl Jones) makes disparaging remarks about his son's lifestyle and line of work. His cousin (Mike Epps) tries to get peeks at Bianca naked. Betty relishes the possibility of Clyde and R.J. fighting. Only R.J.'s mother (Margaret Avery) seems glad to see him. To further complicate matters, R.J. finds a flame igniting between himself and the "one who got away" in high school (Nicole Ari Parker). Their flirting may be mostly innocent but that's not the way Bianca sees it.

When it's being riotous, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins pulls out all the stops, as when R.J. and Betty thrash each other, during the "speaking in tongues" sex scene, and with the dog/dog coupling. Some of this material is good for a laugh or two but, as is often the case with this sort of comedy, there's a tendency to go over the top and enter a state where the jokes are more dumb and obvious than funny. How hard an individual guffaws during such sequences will relate to that person's laughter threshold but even a curmudgeon like me will admit that there are at least a few effectively comedic moments.

It's by shepherding aspects of the storyline into dark territory that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins takes a risk. The dramatic elements are by no means paramount but neither are they too subtle to be missed. R.J. is as dislikeable as characters come; he's a bastard through-and-through. Some of the people around him are decent but a lot of them are as bad - or worse - than he is. While this makes it difficult to sympathize with him, Lee provides a credible reason why he is that way, and it has to do with his upbringing. A lot of dirty laundry is aired and many viewers will end up disliking a majority of the people inhabiting this picture. The problem is that stuff like this can't be resolved in a two-hour comedy but the screenplay disagrees.

Martin Lawrence has spent the majority of his career playing dislikeable individuals. Many times, his characters undergo a transformation during the course of his films. That happens here, but it's so abrupt and unearned that it feels forced. When it was all over and the story had been told, I still didn't like R.J. even though I was supposed to. It's not easy to forgive him for what he does to his son during the obstacle course race but the movie's approach is to sweep it under the rug. Had Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins merely been a lightweight, disposable comedy, things like that might not matter, but the production is successful enough in opening another level that it can't be viewed in such a simplistic manner. It attempts more and, by ultimately falling short, it leaves behind a sense of disquiet.

Four of the supporting performers give clinics on how to act over-the-top. Mo'Nique, Cedric the Entertainer, and Mike Epps are all larger-than-life and, as a result, strip any vestiges of humanity from their characters. Joy Bryant is the ultimate sex predator - a woman who chews men up and spits them out. The romantic aspect asks the age-old question: why is the protagonist with the bad girl when the good girl is so much more interesting and attractive? In this case, however, the answer is obvious: the protagonist deserves who he's with. In the end, we don't want a nice person to be stuck with an ass like R.J. In contrast to the caricature crowd, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, and Nicole Ari Parker are down-to-earth.

Most people will see Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins for the laughs and may find some enjoyment on those grounds, which is fine. The real disappointment with the film, however, is how poorly the dramatic underpinning is attached to the story. Martin Lawrence has made worse films but rarely have his movies failed to work for the reasons this one doesn't succeed. It's not the unevenness of the comedy that kills Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins but the illegitimacy of the drama.

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1