Put some fun into dysfunctional
It's that time of the year again. Time for the Best and the Black family to get together, fire up the grill, throw on the potluck, and drag out the old animosities as maternal meets paternal in the ever-waging war known as family. Uncle Ringworm and his wife Gertrude host the barbeque battle and try desperately to keep the peace. But it's not easy with all the vendettas around. Snake, Ringworm's brother, and Grandma Queenie came to blows last year over a game of horseshoes. Fritz and Diana feel isolated from the rest of the clan, not because of their wealth and status so much as for their role in having cousin Lil' Leon arrested and jailed for theft. Pimpie's place at the drama dinner table is tainted by the fact that he peddles flesh and Andre, the Blacks' son, has just brought home a college friend with the worst doo-doo breath anyone has ever smelled. Along for the fraternal fireworks are Ms. May, an old flame of Grandpa's who hopes to steal the old geezer away from the punch throwing Queen, and a score of ancillary family members who seem to show up only to stuff their faces and run their mouths. But oddly, the Bests and the Blacks wouldn't have it any other way. Sure, they may fight and they may fuss, but in the end, they will always be one big biologically linked brood. And who knows, maybe this year, everyone will get along. But then would it really be a Family Reunion without some manner of relative rumble?
Family Reunion: The Movie starts out with promise. The initial dialogue, character energy, and acting signal that this film may actually break the mold created by most other substandard low budget urban ghetto comedies. It seems to shine with heart, warmth, and wit. The premise is wide open, the actors appealing, and we even get a big belly laugh or two out of an elderly couple doing Tai-Bo. But then the jokes begin to fall back into ridiculous stereotypes, like young men with dragon breath or lustful old women, and seem to center only on the grotesque, like odors and hygiene. Yet we still want to give the movie a chance. Perhaps it's the infectious joy it exudes. Maybe it's the anecdotal depth and potential we can read into the family members. Or maybe it's the hope that a solid farce foundation is being laid with all the introductions, dynamics, and backstories making up the first third of the script. Like those mouthwatering burgers and finger licking chickens broiling over the pit, we anticipate a fine feast of funny and a heaping helping of humor to go along with the "creamy" potato salad setup. But it never quite happens. Family Reunion pushes and tries and climbs and gropes to just get over the edge of blandness and move into a realm of realistic, rip roaring comedy, but it falls short every time. It just doesn't have the imagination or inspiration to come together completely. Eventually it gives up and for the remaining running time the actors are allowed to wallow in pedestrian pleasantries and/or bogus buffoonish bravado. Like an Indian curry without the spice or a gin and tonic without the Tanqueray, Family Reunion: The Movie has no moxie to drive its zaniness. As it is, it can barely grill up a giggle or two.
It's hard to place too much blame on comedian/writer/director/star Red Grant for why this movie fails to work. His heart, head, and humor instincts are all in the right place. He doesn't waste a lot of time trying to overdevelop the material into some sort of comment on race or heritage. The family feuds are clearly drawn, the individual characteristics of the clan are clear and concise, and he doesn't bombard us with tricky camera angles or complicated visuals. True, he does resort to schmaltz in the end, but he just barely avoids high melodrama. There are even some excellent performances. Aside from Grant (who is a stitch as Ringworm), BeBe Drake makes Queen Best tough as well as tender. David Edwards, Mr. "Let's Get Physical" from MTV's Real World / Road Rules shows, is fairly funny as the deviled egg loving Wayne/Mr. Stinkbreath. And Reynaldo Rey is aged perfection in the role of Grandpa Best. So why isn't the movie better? A couple of scenes appear to specify the problems here. Jamal and Jerrod Mixon have got to be two of the fattest, most rotund, obese child/young adult stars in Black Hollywood. These boys are uncomfortably big. They get four scenes, one of which takes place in front of an entire tray of food. Yet when left to their own devices, they cannot generate one genuine laugh, not even when they degenerate into chubby stereotypes, or complain of "hoon-ger cramps." Earlier, a couple of cousins, THC and Resin, are on the radio doing their drive time spliff spiel. But again, not a single stoner riff hits home. In both cases, the reason for the failure is clear. Either the written material is weaker than fourth generation Kool-Aid or the actors can't improvise to save their mortal souls. The two tons of fun should have been able to come up with something better than "the burgers is bangin—the hot dogs is bangin'" and munchie jokes for potheads are like sex jokes about Madonna. Trying to stay within a shock value stifling PG-13 rating kills the kind of comedy that African Americans do best; that is, the curse laden sex crazed comic concerto. Cutting out the mofos removes any hope of happiness to be derived from Family Reunion: The Movie.
Thankfully, Artisan avoids its usual Edict of shunning extras for borderline movies and gives Family Reunion a chance to stand up for itself. Though offered only in full screen, the image is open matte with no pan and scan optical nonsense. The print provided is clear, crisp, and free from defects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is not all that impressive, since what we get here is mostly a dialogue driven, front channel utilizing soundtrack that fails to exploit the remaining 3.1 options. As for extras, Artisan gives us access to some deleted scenes from the film, none of which belong in the final cut. Mostly alternate takes or different line readings, that's all. A quick interview segment with multi-hyphenated Grant offers an insider's idea of what it took to make the film. Grant continuously proclaims his desire to simply make people laugh. Comedy is his art and his goal. Makes one wonder if he gets depressed by the final version of Family Reunion. Probably not, since the final bonus, a full-length audio commentary by Grant, is a self-love fest of egotistical proportions. Grant thinks he is Spike Lee, or at least he really identifies with him, since he name checks the auteur constantly. Every scene is either "cold" or "classic" and resonates with a power and performance maturity that only Grant can see. He has kind words for his entire cast and even goes so far as to point out interesting cameos. But you'd swear from the first person narrative that he alone created this supposed comic "gem." Only toward the very end does he acknowledge that other people were actually involved. In truth, Grant is a very appealing person and probably has a great deal of potential as a filmmaker. If Family Reunion: The Movie had taken some risks and used a more risqué script, it would have delivered a fiendishly funny film. Instead it's like a piece of overcooked BBQ pork: tough and flavorless.
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