“Family is a 24-7 reality check,” explains one of the parade of nightmare relatives. “This is one hell of a family,” says another. These two statements pretty much summarize the movie. And that’s the good news.
Family reunions on screen create immediate identification. We all know what it feels like to come home to our families of origin and discover how quickly those carefully-assembled grown-up personas disappear and those just-below-the-surface rivalries take over. That is why it is fun to see it happen to someone else. This set-up and a talented cast provide the engine that keeps this movie going even when the screenplay lags behind.
Martin Lawrence plays a therapist/author with a successful talk show. He is engaged to Bianca (Joy Bryant) the gorgeous and intensely competitive champion of the reality show “Survivor.” He brings her to meet his family on his first visit home in nine years, for his parents’ 50th anniversary celebration. Although his son Jamaal wanted to be with the family, R.J. had not planned to go – he sent a giant flat-panel TV instead. But Bianca points out that it would be great publicity to film it for his television show, showing the hometown boy made good, surrounding by adoring relatives.
He leaves L.A. called Dr. R.J. Stevens, on Bianca’s vegan diet, and wearing designer clothes. All of that is lost as soon as he arrives. At home, he’s plain old Roscoe Jenkins again. He is stuck with old clothes and some ugly too-small pants he bought at the airport after his suitcase disappeared. And those ribs his brother is grilling smell too good to resist. Soon his ideas about what he thought he wanted and what he thought he had begun to achieve are jettisoned as well, through a series of humiliations, moments of self-discovery, and other surprises.
That’s surprises for the characters; there are not many surprises for the audience. Writer-director Malcolm Lee (of the far-better “Roll Bounce” and “Undercover Brother”) trots out each member of the cast for a turn at making life difficult for Roscoe and Bianca. Mike Epps is Roscoe’s cousin who is always looking for an angle, a hand-out, or a short-cut. Mo’Nique is his sister with the big mouth and big appetites. Cedric the Entertainer is the cousin who used to beat Roscoe in everything except for that one time he lost the obstacle course race. Nicole Ari Parker is the sweet girl he left behind. James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery are the parents who provide stern but benignly loving commentary. And there’s also a very big dog who has taken an interest in Bianca’s little Fifi.
There are a lot of outrageous, raunchy, and insulting comments from caricatured family members, but, surprisingly, considering that most of them are played by stand-up comics, very few actual jokes. Lawrence can be funnier playing comedy offense rather than defense, but this movie does not give him much opportunity; he spends most of his screen time looking pained. The movie falters most when it tries to imitate Tyler Perry, who makes audiences happy with his mash-ups of crude humor, gentle romance, triumph over adversity, and the grace of God. His films work because they are anchored in the sincerity of his conviction. This synthetic and utterly predictable movie shows us once again that this indispensible quality cannot be faked.
Parents should know this film has a lot of very crude and raunchy humor, including explicit sexual references and situations (human and animal), light bondage, and references to a form of intimate topiary. Characters use strong and vulgar language. There is comic peril and violence, including hits to the crotch and getting slammed in the head with a line drive. Characters drink and there are references to drugs.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Roscoe did not want to go home and about stress that family expectations and history can create. And they might like to try some red velvet cake.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Madea’s Family Reunion and The Family Stone.