By Alan Scherstuhl
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Carolina Del Busto
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Kevin Dilmore
By New Times
By Amy Nicholson
Anderson plays Junior, one of two sons of the recently deceased Bud Slocumb, who kicks the bucket during the opening credits while his wife, Raynelle (Whoopi Goldberg), reads a letter from her sanctimonious Jesus-praising sister Marguerite (Boston Public's Loretta Devine) castigating Bud for lapsing in his church attendance. Raynelle seems particularly unperturbed by her husband's passing, describing him as "mean and surly" to the point of insisting that those three words be inscribed upon his tombstone. For the rest of the family, however, who assemble for the funeral, the time has come to bring all their issues to the surface, and emotional turmoil (some comedic, some tragic and some a mixture of both) proceeds to erupt.
There's Junior's brother Ray Bud (LL Cool J), the "former" alcoholic who's only been faking his recovery, married to Lucille (Vivica A. Fox), who wants to have children but keeps miscarrying. There's the zealous Christian Marguerite, who addresses her son Royce (Darius McCrary) as "Demon" and "Satan," seemingly just because he smokes and likes to sleep late. There's Raynelle's third child, a fat face-stuffer named Delightful (the one-moniker newcomer Masasa) who never speaks, perhaps because talking with one's mouth full isn't polite. And of course there's Junior, trapped in an Al Bundy-like existence with a screeching harpy of a wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and three uncontrollable children, wanting for cash following the dramatic failure of his small business -- a parking-lot cleaning service.
All the action takes place in a small Southern town where the local church has sermons with titles like "You think it's hot now?" and no races other than blacks live (a refreshing reversal, perhaps, but not entirely believable). Presiding over the funeral is the Reverend Hooker (Cedric the Entertainer), a character who stands out as the film's most significant misstep. It's bad enough that he has such a goofy name (He's religious! But his name vaguely reminds us of fornication! How comical!), but the addition of an Elmer Fudd speech impediment and a bad case of bowel trouble at a crucial moment make his presence frequently insufferable and excessively silly. Not to mention the fact that he seems like a low-rent knockoff of Rowan Atkinson in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
And Whoopi Goldberg, maternal as she may be, is simply too young to be the family matriarch. The makeup people couldn't even be bothered trying to make her look any older, apparently -- less pancake and a little gray hair wouldn't have hurt. LL Cool J is only 13 years younger than Goldberg, and looks it. Whoopi conceivably could have spawned Anderson at a young age, but since he's playing slightly older than he really is, that doesn't entirely work either. Loretta Devine has a much more believable matriarchal presence, albeit that of the scariest mother on the face of the planet. "Life is not a good time, Royce!" she admonishes her son at one point. "Yeah, well you livin' proof of that," he responds.
With the exception of Cedric, who may simply be the victim of an ill-conceived character on the part of screenwriters David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones (who adapted from their own play Dearly Departed), the ensemble works very well together. Even Toni Braxton, making her acting debut under a Farrah Fawcett blond wig, fits into the picture smoothly. Scene-stealing credit should also be given to longtime character actor Richard Gant as Ray Bud's ineptly lecherous employer who is never seen without a partial six-pack of MGD hanging from his fingers. All in all, it's the sort of ensemble work Ron Howard used to specialize in, though even he hasn't really delivered since The Paper. By holding his own with such big guns, and delivering an outstanding freak-out scene during the standard noisy-kids-in-the-back-of-the-car setup, Anderson proves himself worthy of some lead roles in the future, and of a breather from comedic cowards. The ending's a little too sappy, with Kirk Franklin's gospel song score overdoing it a tad (even Opie would have inserted a joke or two), but everything leading up to the finale is funny and often heartfelt. There's even some decent wisdom being dispensed. One of Ray Bud's lines to his wife rings truer than the average movie platitude, and may serve as guidance for some audience members: Speaking of his issues with the deceased, LL simply says, "Don't try to fix it. Just let it be wrong for a while." Amen.
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