The Tyler Perry phenomenon has left major studios scrambling to find an answer: How did this man create an empire out of regional theater shows and find a massive audience for his movies without the support—or even acknowledgment—of the mainstream? The ensemble comedy Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins shows some real savvy in appropriating the Perry formula while smoothing out the rough edges. It softens the overt Christian themes and racial-identity politics, but the focus on family matters remains, as does the mix of lowbrow comedy and sentimental melodrama, though it's less jarring and more palatable. Director Malcolm D. Lee, whose previous work includes the underrated Undercover Brother and Roll Bounce, gives a cast loaded with outsized (and often oversized) comedic talents enough space to do their shtick, and he seems reasonably sincere about his script's slick-city-boy-rehabilitated-on-the-farm clichés.
As usual, Martin Lawrence brings little but sub-Eddie Murphy hijinks to the table as an egotistical self-help talk-show host—one part Dr. Phil, another part Jerry Springer—who's ashamed of his backwoods Southern family. Recently married to a gorgeous but controlling, fiercely competitive Survivor winner (Joy Bryant), Lawrence gets lured back home for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. In spite of his success, he gets his peacock-pride deflated quickly by his disapproving father (James Earl Jones) and simple-living siblings Michael Clarke Duncan, Mike Epps, Mo'Nique, and Cedric The Entertainer, who tease and bully him at every opportunity. His long rivalry with Cedric, in particular, brings some ugliness back to the surface, especially when it comes to the good-hearted prom queen (Nicole Ari Parker) that Cedric swiped out from under him.
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins leans too heavily on bruising slapstick for easy laughs, with Lawrence absorbing blows from most of his family members, when mosquitoes and skunks aren't getting in on the action. The supporting players fare better, with Mo'Nique a surprising standout as an unapologetic hussy who runs on tea-flavored sugar drinks and uses Christ as a means to arrange conjugal visits with local inmates. Epps and Cedric each have paltrier batting averages, but Lee lets them swing away anyway, which is better than confining them to ill-fitting roles. Though his generosity could be construed as indulgence on many occasions, the film has a warmth and raucousness that's surprisingly disarming. In other words, it's about as good as a movie featuring gratuitous Pomeranian-humping could possibly be.