[7 February 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut.
—Reggie (Mike Epps)
R.J. Stevens (Martin Lawrence), nee Roscoe Jenkins, believes in himself. Or so he says. The host of a raucous talk show (“I’ve been banging your sister!”), he’s wildly popular and prone to trumpet his formula for success, namely, the “Team of Me” concept. No matter what happens, you’re the center of your own story, filled-to-bursting with self-confidence and deserving of all good things that come your way. In Roscoe’s case, this means a Range Rover and designer threads, as well as an infinitely patient, all-around terrific kid, Jamaal (Damani Roberts), and a beautiful fiancée, Bianca (Joy Bryant).
True, she’s a raging narcissist and hardcore competitor (demonstrated by her recent win on Survivor)? She’s helped Roscoe become a vegan, repress his past, and embrace his tabloidy fan base. For their wedding, she’s hoping for full coverage—and when he invites her to come along for his parents’ 50th anniversary/reunion, well, she only needs minutes to convince a TV crew to follow along—it’ll get good ratings, the revelation of the star’s roots. Besides, the film is set up so the citified prodigal son will learn just how much he misses home—some of it, anyway. Still, Roscoe has worries. He hasn’t been back to Dry Springs, Georgia for years, and his arrival at the “country ass airport” is not exactly propitious: his luggage is lost and his ruined white suit (owing to the beet juice Bianca has insisted he handle) has given way to a pair of madras pants about four inches too short. But okay, Roscoe’s game, and he wants to do right by his mamma (Margaret Avery), even if he’s nursing a longtime resentment against his father (James Earl Jones).
This resentment has to do with papa’s manifest preference for Roscoe’s orphaned cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer). A few choice flashbacks show little Roscoe (Reginald Davis Jr.) and little Clyde (Gus Hoffman) engaged in vital contests—at home and school, and over the cutest girl in class, Lucinda (Samantha Smith). “Clyde used to whup Roscoe’s tail in everything!” announces Betty (Mo’Nique), smiling broadly. In other words, Roscoe has reasons for turning into such a needy, overcompensating twit. The fact that Clyde, now a wealthy car dealer, shows up for the reunion with grown-up Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker) on his arm, throws him into immediate chaos. Suddenly, Roscoe’s engagement to Bianca doesn’t look so inevitable.
Of course, the movie has long since established that Bianca is a tyrant and exhibitionist, precisely not the ideal mate for someone insecure enough to conjure the Team of Me. As soon as lovely Lucinda appears, the crisis is clear; Roscoe must proceed to work it through on display before his loud, judgmental, aggrieved family members. Roscoe’s wealth and fame have apparently annoyed them for years, while Clyde’s equally ostentatious triumph (he rolls up in an escalade) seems just fine. At least this is Roscoe’s view, and the film takes it up with something like a vengeance, each offense committed by Bianca magnified, perhaps especially those Roscoe doesn’t see, as when she shows up in the kitchen with lapdog in hand and proclaims Betty’s sweet tea “liquid diabetes.” Betty fixes her with a look. Despite the fact that she’s just called Bianca the “baddest bitch Survivor ever had,” now Betty has cause to hate: “Don’t get all uppity,” she snarls. Game on.
The film’s own abuses of Bianca are tedious and predictable, per formula: in order to recover himself, Roscoe must recover the hometown girl who embodies his past, meaning that neither girl has much chance to be a character unto herself. Bianca’s dog issues turn ugly almost immediately, when Cousin Reggie (Mike Epps) notes its resemblance to the Taco Bell icon, then sets the family hound dog on it (Bianca’s terminal vanity—“Nothing’s wrecking this figure!”—is made clearer by the minute, as is the requisite scene where she practices yoga and her bottom solicits all sorts of ogling from Roscoe and Reggie: “Damn, you are flexible!”). Betty too becomes a symptom more than a person, which only means that Mo’Nique stomps Roscoe’s butt: “You should do a show,” Betty advises while descending on him, “about scrawny little brothers who constantly get bitched!”
All this said, there’s a not bad movie inside of Welcome Home, visible in the quiet center provided by Avery, especially, as well as the odd moments in Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance as Otis, erstwhile bully and current local law. Jokey details help too, from fleeting dialogue (when Roscoe asks for skinless chicken instead of ribs, Otis is aghast: “You Muslim now?”) to Epps’ relative calm amid the swirling storm of Lawrence-and-Cedric. At the corners of ruckus—the obstacle course competitions, the predictable slapstick and overwrought throw-downs—the movie sets aside a few minutes to showcase rowdy exchanges among the veteran comics, passed through a PG-13 filter.