Three people — including producer/guest-star Queen Latifah — cooked up the story for this Barbershop wannabe. At that point, three more folks (none with previous writing credits) grilled the concept into an overdone screenplay that manages to incorporate every racial stereotype known to man. And finally, record-label co-founder-turned-director Lance Rivera served it up almost entirely without seasoning.
The best thing that can be said for The Cookout is that it’s nowhere near as repellent and stupid as Paparazzi, and not even in the same realm of tedium as this past Friday’s other opener, Wicker Park (see Marci Miller’s review for a more appreciative take on that film). If that sounds like damning the movie with faint praise, it is. At the same time, it appears that the usually savvy Queen Latifah has followed the same recipe as Mel Gibson did with Paparazzi: surrounding herself with friends elevated to positions of creative authority without any regard for their actual talents.
It might have been a blast for Latifah and her buddies to make, but that doesn’t translate into the same fun for the audience. And the fact that this film lacks the kind of drawing power that the Barbershop flicks boasted (with stars like Ice Cube and Cedric The Entertainer) means it’s forced to succeed on its own merits, which here just don’t exist. That’s too bad, because The Cookout actually starts out on a promising note with basketball whiz Todd Anderson (newcomer Quran Pender) and his parents (Frankie Faisson, White Chicks, and Jenifer Lewis, Juwanna Man) being interviewed by an entertainment-TV crew that’s completely out to sea over what to do with a young African-American man who’s making good, and who boasts no ghetto horror stories. Unfortunately, this satirical thrust is quickly dropped in favor of a series of generally unfunny vignettes that would have been deemed demeaning by the staff writers for The Jeffersons (the theme song of which is, ironically, heard on this film’s soundtrack).
The plot — such as it is — is simple stuff. Todd and girlfriend Brittany (Meagan Good, You Got Served) buy a mansion in an upscale, lily-white, gated community, whereupon Todd’s terminally gauche parents invite the rest of the family over for a cookout. Subplots flesh this out to something like a feature film: Mom has Brittany rightly pegged as a gold-digging skank, so she sets out to show Brittany up and get her son back together with his childhood sweetheart (Eve, Barbershop). At the same time, Mom is engaged in some incomprehensible one-upsmanship game with her own sister (think: Johnson Family Vacation).
There’s a spectacularly unfunny side issue involving Mrs. Crowley (a scary-looking Farrah Fawcett), who’s horrified that there are “negroes” in the neighborhood — despite the fact that her husband, Judge Crawley (Danny Glover), is black. Of course, the fact that the judge isn’t festooned with tons of jewelry and doesn’t indulge in ghetto-speak means he doesn’t really count. Naturally, he soon loosens up and gets his bling back, talking like some PG-13 version of a gangsta rapper after smoking some weed with Todd’s astoundingly obese cousins. There’s more, sure, but it’s all in the same vein.
The worst of it is that Queen Latifah has managed something I would have thought impossible, making herself uninteresting and unfunny in her extended cameo as an inept security guard she seems to have patterned on Eugene Levy in New York Minute. But then the movie also manages to turn Eve into an equally bland character, despite giving her late-in-the-day entrance a huge build-up. (You can’t help wishing she’d just scream, “Who drank my g*ddamn apple juice?” or something else from Barbershop to liven things up.)
A few funny moments do intrude, mostly thanks to Tim Meadows as Todd’s conspiracy-theory-focused uncle and Jennifer Lewis (who seems to be channeling Bette Davis) as his mother. Still, these few high points hardly add up to enough to keep this barbecue grill from just fizzling out.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke