When it comes to flat-out, gut-busting funny stuff, the pickings are slim in "The Cookout." Theatrical prospects are slight, which likely explains why Lions Gate tossed pic into the Labor Day weekend slot without benefit of press previews.

When it comes to flat-out, gut-busting funny stuff, the pickings are slim in “The Cookout.” Theatrical prospects are slight, which likely explains why Lions Gate tossed pic into the Labor Day weekend slot without benefit of press previews. Still, there may be enough tasty bits and pieces throughout this genially slapdash comedy to secure respectable rental and sell-through sampling when it’s served up in homevid outlets.

Borrowing freely from “Barbershop” and a few other comedies aimed primarily at African-American auds, “Cookout” is a loosely plotted and wildly uneven farce that relies on interaction of diverse characters within a limited timeframe. Typical of its ethnocentric subgenre, pic attempts a neat balance of humor and homilies, raucous jokes and traditional values, while trafficking in affectionately rendered archetypes and mildly scolding admonitions.

It took no fewer than six credited collaborators (including co-producer and co-star Queen Latifah) to cobble together the slender storyline. Todd Anderson (songwriter and tyro actor Storm P), the intelligent and talented son of proud parents Lady Em (Jenifer Lewis) and JoJo Anderson (Frankie Faison), is a college basketball phenom who signs a $30 million contract with the New Jersey Nets during the NBA draft. Brittany (Meagan Good), his blithely materialistic girlfriend, talks Todd into purchasing, among many other things, a spacious mansion in a stuffy gated community.

But Lady Em — frankly distrustful of Brittany, and eager to keep her son connected to his roots — wants to decorate the new digs in down-home style. More important, she insists on having a family cookout at the manse. Trouble is, she schedules the gathering on the very day Todd and his agent (Jonathan Silverman) are negotiating a major endorsement deal with a visiting exec. Complications arise.

Much to Todd’s discomfort — and, of course, to Brittany’s horror — the mansion gradually is overrun with various uninhibited relatives and friends. (“They’re the black Beverly Hillbillies,” Brittany wails.) Among the most conspicuous guests: Uncle Leroy (Tim Meadows), a failed would-be lawyer who spins paranoid conspiracy theories; Aunt Nettie (Rita Owens), Lady Em’s chronically competitive sister; and Becky (Eve), Todd’s childhood buddy, who sports tattoos and a sultry demeanor, but is posited as the “good” girlfriend in contrast to the more refined but less trustworthy Brittany.

Bling Bling (Ja Rule) and Wheezer (Ruperto Vanderpool), two thuggish homies from the ‘hood, also crash the party in hope of forcing Todd to autograph sneakers they can sell on eBay.

Two uptight neighbors — a dignified black judge (Danny Glover) and his white Southern trophy wife (Farrah Fawcett) — are upset by the arrival of so many rowdy “Negroes,” but eventually get into the party spirit.

It takes a bit longer to win over a tough-talking security guard (Queen Latifah), who doesn’t look kindly on Todd’s having too many guests and using an unauthorized outdoor grill.

To his credit, first-time feature helmer Lance Rivera soft-pedals crude jokes about bodily functions: It takes almost 30 minutes for the first flatulence joke to arrive. Rivera also refrains from caricaturing easy targets — Todd’s white manager, for example, is not depicted as a crude greedhead — even though he can’t resist wringing laughs from such tired stereotypes as domineering mothers, near-senile geezers, incontinent toddlers, slatternly unwed mothers, corpulent dope smokers and, of course, a white woman who’s mightily impressed and aroused when a previous docile black man exerts swaggering authority.

For the most part, however, episodic “Cookout” proceeds at a rambling pace without developing much in the way of comic momentum or scoring many laugh-out-loud high points.

Performances range from inoffensively competent to aggressively over the top, while tech values suggest the pinching of pennies, the cutting of corners and the avoidance of retakes.

The Cookout

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Flavor Unit Films production. Produced by Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Darryl "Latee" French. Executive producers, Michael Paseornek, John Sacchi, Mike Elliot. Co-producer, Otis Best. Directed by Lance Rivera. Screenplay, Laurie B. Tuner, Ramsey Gbelawoe, Jeffrey Brian Holmes, based on a story by Queen Latifah, Shakim Compere, Darryl "Latee" French.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Tom Houghton; editors, Jeff McEvoy, Patricia Bowers; music, Camara Kambon; music supervisor, Keir Gist; production designer, Anne Stuhler; art director, Roswell Hamrick; costume designer, Misa Hylton-Brim; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), John D'Aquino; assistant director, Amanda Slater; casting, Leah Daniels-Butler. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Sept. 3, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Bling Bling - Ja Rule Uncle Leroy - Tim Meadows Lady Em - Jenifer Lewis Todd Anderson - Storm P Brittany - Meagan Good Wes - Jonathan Silverman Mrs. Crowley - Farrah Fawcett JoJo Anderson - Frankie Faison Becky - Eve Judge Crowley - Danny Glover Security Guard - Queen Latifah Butler - Gerry Bamman Aunt Nettie - Rita Owens Ms. Peters - Marci Reed Wheezer - Ruperto Vanderpool Marv Albert - Himself Elton Brand - Himself Baron Davis - Himself Mark Cuban - Himself
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