Queen Latifah must be busy these days, between voicing those irritating “rippin’ and dippin'” ads for Pizza Hut, selecting movie roles, and keeping up her music and movie production company, Flava Unit. So, perhaps it’s understandable that some projects get away from her. Or maybe they don’t. As she and fellow cast members Tim Meadows and Farrah Fawcett appeared on tv Friday morning to promote The Cookout, they acted as if they were happy with their movie. Ah well, it’s a living.
The Cookout — the first directed by music video maestro Lance Rivera — purports to be concerned with “family.” Namely, the family of one Todd Anderson (Storm P), a young basketball player who, once an awkward schoolboy (revealed in very brief prelude, to show his friendship with fellow geek, braces-and-thick-glasses-wearing Becky), is now the first NBA draft pick. On winning a $30 million contract from the New Jersey Nets, he’s immediately beset with expectations, spoken and not, from his family. After all, reason his mother Lady Em (Jenifer Lewis) and father JoJo (Frankie Faison), they’ve supported him all these years.
This image of the family unit — however dysfunctional — flies in the face of what Todd’s new “public” assumes and, more importantly, what the Nets want to project. A couple of journalists ply him with questions regarding his background, itching to recount his up-form-the-streets story, his escape from the “hood,” his resentment at his missing father, his survival of “drug abuse, the drink, or domestic violence.” When Todd insists that his father is sitting right there beside him and moreover, that his family supports him wholeheartedly and their lives are middle class and fine, thanks, the sports reporters are forlorn. If he’s not going to fit a stereotype, what good is he?
After this few-minutes-long interrogation, Todd confronts his real problem, his family. In addition to his parents, this includes assorted cousins, Aunt Nettie (Rita Owens) and Frank (Reg E. Cathey), a muttering, stumbling grandfather (Carl Wright), and a new girlfriend Brittany (Meagan Good). If Todd is exultant that she snuggles in his lap during the NBA Draft, Lady Em is less impressed, rolling her neck as she sizes up this “skanky” girl.
First, Todd tries to outfit the folks: he sends them (as a “gift”) a white butler named (yawn) Jeeves (Gerry Bamma), DVD player and video camera, and industrial strength air conditioning (“We don’t have to stick to the plastic on the furniture anymore,” exults JoJo). Brittany has her own ideas about what Todd’s new job means for her, namely, that he needs to move out of mom’s house. And so Brittany picks out new digs, — a huge white mansion in a white gated community, with seven bedrooms and 10 bathrooms.
Worried that his client is overspending, Todd’s agent, Wes (Jonathan Silverman), sets up a meeting with a rep from a wireless phone company, Miss Peters (Marci Reid), in hopes of securing an endorsement contract. And wouldn’t you know, the meeting with prissy Miss Peters is scheduled for the same day as the family cookout, which is supposed to smooth over all the ruffled feathers caused by Todd’s seeming shift toward uppity behavior (the fact that he lets Brittany redo his mom’s tacky décor in the new house is sign of this, and Lady Em resents it, for sure). The poor kid can’t rearrange his day, and so he’s stuck in the middle, trying to impress the nice lady and appease his ever-ready-to-be-mad family members.
The bulk of the movie concerns this disastrous day when all the relatives gets together at Todd’s house, embarrassing him in front of Miss Peters and making him rethink his longstanding loyalty to his family. As The Cookout is hardly concerned with plot, a character list might suffice to describe what “happens”: “country” cousins Jasper (Godfrey) and Jemar (Shawn Andrew) wear overalls, carry shotguns, and come bearing a dead deer ready for barbequing, and overweight pothead cousins Willie (Jerod Mixon) and Nelson (Jamal Mixon) arrive in a car filled with smoke and head immediately for whatever food is available.
The relatively sedate Uncle Leroy (Tim Meadows), who has failed the bar exam 15 times, can’t help but offer free “legal” advice even when no one asks for it; most of this has to do with the racist injustice of the world, as when he notes that because people believe a black cat is “bad luck,” his status as a black man (also known as a “cat”) is what induced his wife to leave him. Or again, Nettie and Frank come over with their son Jamal (Kevin L. Phillips), who wishes Todd well even as he longs to be a doctor, an ambition that distresses his mother, competing with her sister Lady Em over whose son might make the most money.
The nearest neighbors — Judge Crowley (Danny Glover) and Mrs. Crowley (Farrah Fawcett) — provide The Cookout‘s jokes about racists: she’s afraid that “Negroes” have moved in next door, assuming they’re a “gang.” He’s stiff and fearful in his own way, rejecting Todd’s greeting as a fellow “brother” in this Caucasian enclave, at least until he meets up with Willie and Nelson, who offer him some weed. After getting high, he’s ready not only to reclaim his apparently repressed “blackness,” but also to bed his wife. “Tired” doesn’t begin to describe this stereotype.
A few other guests also make “surprise” appearances — whom you know about from the start of the film, even if Todd doesn’t — including the gated community’s wannabe-cop security guard (Latifah), his geeky childhood friend Becky (now grown up into the stunning and self-confident Eve), and Todd’s other, mostly forgotten classmate Bling Bling (Ja Rule) and his sidekick Wheezer (Roberto Vanderpool). Their journey to the cookout begins with Bling Bling’s scheme to force Todd to sign a crowd of stolen sneakers, so he can sell them on E-bay for lots of cash. His eventual arrival at the cookout erupts into mayhem, as he’s outed as a wussy cry baby waving his gun because he can’t do anything else. (The scene makes you think that 50 Cent is right about this guy.)
The film also hates on Bling Bling. He crashes his expensive car and he and Wheeze have to hitch a ride with a man driving a beat up, absolutely stinky truck (this after Wheeze has been sprayed by a skunk, which must have made someone laugh at some point in the filmmaking process, but it’s hard to know why or how). Identified in the credits as the “poo salesman” (Vincent Pastore), this guy collects and sells manure, a job he describes in some detail, to the point that Bling Bling just has to get out. Here, at last, he’s utterly right. Please, please, we all just want to get out.