The Cookout

Technically, of course, I should not be reviewing “The Cookout” — not because the studio refused to pre-screen it for critics (though it did), but because it is an African-American comedy and I am a white person.

I was told this by a reader who violently disagreed with my review of “White Chicks” and wrote the following e-mail:

“TO make this short and sweet. I feel that WHITE MOVIE CRITICS like yourself are a JOKE when it comes to BLACK COMEDY ( You have not clue what that is)I stay away form comedy that I do not connect with like FRIENDS. It makes not sense to me but I respect it. Just becaue you cannot connect to the humor of perhaps you could try to respect it. This is your LITTE page and I landed here by accident kinda like your career.”

It’s hard to argue with a well-reasoned, thoroughly spell-checked argument like that, but here I am, reviewing another black comedy anyway, and probably even commenting some more on the fascinating white-black dynamic in this country.

A hip-hop remix of the theme from “The Jeffersons” is heard on the soundtrack, and not for nothin’. It’s about Todd Andersen (Storm P), a likable, unassuming young basketball player from New Jersey who, upon becoming the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick, suddenly finds himself a multi-millionaire. He immediately acquires a gold-digging girlfriend named Brittany (Meagan Good), showers his parents with gifts, and buys not a deluxe apartment in the sky, but a palatial home in a snooty gated community.

His parents, the well-grounded Emma (Jenifer Lewis) and the glad-to-be-rich Jojo (Frankie Faison), join Todd and the entire extended family one Saturday at the mansion for a good old-fashioned cookout. But they’re on what we call a collision course with wackiness, because ALSO stopping by today is a representative from a cell phone company that is considering giving Todd a lucrative endorsement deal, and wouldn’t you know it, she’s an uptight white woman! What will she think of all the monkeyshines and shenanigans taking place at an African-American family barbecue?!

That bit of zaniness is just one of many, many subplots and tangents thrown into this affable but amateurish comedy, directed by music industry exec Lance Rivera. Emma’s rivalry with Brittany is a given, as is the fact that an oft-mentioned woman from Todd’s past (played by rapper Eve) is bound to pull a deus ex machina by showing up at the last minute and giving him someone better to fall in love with. There’s a neighborhood security guard played — or, rather, over-played — by Queen Latifah who causes trouble, and there are two irritating supporting characters named Bling (Ja Rule) and Wheezer (Ruperto Vanderpool), low-lifes from Todd’s old neighborhood who want to cash in on his sudden success.

That’s not to mention all the relatives who show up: unwed-mother cousins, jealous aunts, obese twin cousins, conspiracy-theorist uncles, and so forth. They even manage to find, somehow, a pair of black hillbillies, complete with dirty overalls and missing teeth. You have to admire a screenplay (this one is credited to three people, all first-timers, with the story attributed to three more) that will go to such great lengths to find new stereotypes to exploit, even if those stereotypes don’t exist in real life. (Black hillbillies? Please.)

Ultimately, the message here is about the importance of family, a quality often put in sharp focus in African-American films. Interesting how there are numerous jokes in this one at the expense of the unwed-mother cousin, a woman with as many baby daddies as she has babies. Is the film being hypocritical, touting family values while treating unwed motherhood so lightly? Or are the jokes meant to remind us of the tragedy that they mask, a sort of laugh-so-you-don’t-cry approach?

I’m sure I’m over-analyzing it, but when a comedy misfires as badly as this one does, I’m left with little else to think about. It’s curious how, in an early scene, it is a black reporter, not a white one, who mistakenly assumes Todd comes from a broken home in the ghetto, rather than a happy lower-middle-class one. Would it have been funnier if it had been a clueless white reporter making those assumptions? For that matter, might it have been funnier if Todd WERE from a broken ghetto home? Wouldn’t that make the contrast with his new-found wealth and stability even stronger? Did the filmmakers reject that path out of fear it might provide reinforcement for the negative stereotypes about black people that already exist?

Simply put, this is a movie that just doesn’t know how to construct comedy. They’ve got Tim Meadows playing a wannabe lawyer who goes on and on about how The Man is always keeping the black man down, and he makes sports analogies: In hockey, why is it a bunch of white guys slapping a BLACK puck around? And I think that sort of observation was probably funny, when it was Meadows’ “SNL” castmate Chris Rock doing it as Nat X, 13 years ago. Now that a character like this has been included in almost every black comedy since then, it’s amazingly unfunny.

I like Jenifer Lewis as Todd’s mother. She’s a strong, respectable presence in a movie that doesn’t deserve her. I enjoyed the scene where she competes for control of the kitchen with the two outrageously gay European chefs that Brittany hired: it’s “the Van Gogh of veal” versus “the Aretha Franklin of fried chicken,” as the butler puts it.

In all, there are a few chuckles scattered amidst the wreckage of the film, but more embarrassment over the tired, obvious gags. It’s not a black thing or a white thing; it’s an incompetent thing.

D+ (1 hr., 28 min.; PG-13, a smattering of profanity, some vulgarity.)