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A 'WELCOME' SURPRISE

Though it has faults, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is smart enough to rise above the dumb-comedy genre.

Don't be fooled by lowbrow advertising into thinking Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is another foolish Ice Cube comedy or (shudder) Norbit.

There's more happening in this movie than gross encounters with animals and fat women, punctuated by groin gags.

Those low common denominators are here, but they don't turn up until writer-director Malcolm D. Lee and his multigenerational cast create a vibe that makes them tolerable because they're not the whole show. A few of the African-American actors built careers on bad taste and neo-minstrel stereotypes. Others, like James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery, earned fame with pride and positive images.

On balance, the old-school attitude wins out.

Martin Lawrence stars as Roscoe, although he's known to millions of TV viewers as Dr. R.J. Stevens, a talk show host combining Jerry Springer's sleaze and Dr. Phil's pompous advice. Even his social-climber fiancee Bianca Kittles (Joy Bryant) - a Survivor champion who can't stop playing head games - doesn't know his given name and rural Georgia background.

Roscoe is so detached from his past that even the 50th anniversary of his parents (Jones, Avery) can't make him return. That is, until his son Jamaal (Damani Roberts) confesses to corresponding with the grandpa he never met. Roscoe agrees to the trip, feeling guilty about being a negligent father and son.

The ensuing culture clash reminds us of Sweet Home Alabama, with Roscoe rediscovering the simple pleasures of country life while realizing his urban existence is shallower than he thought. Lee's screenplay isn't nearly a work of art but remains true to the values of a family composed of colorful characters.

Lee's smartest move is never giving any of these outsized personalities too much time to do the same thing over and over again. For example, Mike Epps (the Friday series) could be an overbearing presence with his improvised riffs as Roscoe's shifty cousin. But he slips in and out of the story to good effect. The same goes for brassy Mo'Nique (Phat Girlz) and Cedric the Entertainer in full macking mode.

Jones and Avery are always around, offering the flip sides of black camaraderie and conflict, relying on moral strength that can also be a bit silly. Michael Clarke Duncan uses his size to convey gentle strength. The younger stars will do anything to make viewers laugh, but the old pros stay grounded, keeping everything honest and therefore funnier.

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins eventually overstays its welcome; the slapstick and skunk jokes would be worth trimming. But as far as a genial comedy goes - with too many sex jokes to be family-friendly - viewers could do much worse in the dog days of movies before summer.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Review

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins

Grade: B-

Director: Malcolm D. Lee

Cast: Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer, James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Mo'Nique, Mike Epps, Joy Bryant, Michael Clarke Duncan, Damani Roberts

Screenplay: Malcolm D. Lee

Rating: PG-13; profanity, crude and sexual content, comical violence, drug references

Running time: 110 min.

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