Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Starring: Bow Wow, Chi McBride, Meagan Good, Jurnee Smollett, Nick Cannon
Despite a few phrases and terms ("in the hood," "that's jacked," "I was trippin'") that I'm pretty sure were not common coin in 1978, Malcolm D. Lee's Roll Bounce feels more like a movie from 1978 than one about 1978. It simply lets it be 1978 without bludgeoning the viewer over the head with quaint fashions and fads. These things are there -- a Fonzie T-shirt, primitive Atari games, bell-bottoms, and enough polyester to send every cotton grower in the civilized world into visions of bankruptcy. But these elements are pleasantly unstressed.
Roll Bounce is a gentle, congenial little movie that plays like an only-very-slightly deeper extended episode of What's Happenin'? (a show referenced in the film). The movie is actually one of the year's more pleasant surprises, though it misses being more than that through a combination of length (112 minutes is a good 15 to 20 minutes more than its slight story can support) and a sometimes sloppy, meandering screenplay.
Once the movie passes the 90-minute mark, it starts to wear out its welcome, and its neatly packaged, feel-good ending could have been a little more neat. Too many of the engaging supporting characters -- especially Nick Cannon's funny bit part as the skate desk clerk, Bernard -- could have been worked into the climax, but are instead just allowed to disappear from the proceedings.
The film tells a simple story about a group of kids -- more or less headed up by Bow Wow (having dropped the "Li'l," it is only a matter of time before he is simply Wow) -- who head across town when their neighborhood skating rink is closed down. (That they seem to be shocked by the closing after they've been at a skating event with banners announcing it's the last day and thanking patrons for 25 years of business is a bit mystifying.) Of course, they're out of their league -- economically, socially and talent-wise -- but this won't deter them from barging ahead and entering in the big ($500 prize) skating competition.
The movie's on solid, if pretty predictable, ground with this material, and it stays there in an affable sitcom manner as long as it sticks to the basics, even though it insists on confusing itself by providing what appear to be two love interests for Mr. Wow for no very good reason.
However, Roll Bounce wants to be deeper than this allows, so it drags in a dead mother for Wow, which, of course, also affords him a grieving father (Chi McBride, Undercover Brother), who has also lost his job and is keeping up a facade of going to work for the sake of his children. This part of the movie doesn't really hold together, especially when Wow gets angry with dad for pretending things are OK. The anger isn't just out of proportion; it doesn't make good sense. Even a disco-loving, skate-obsessed teenager could figure out that his father was just trying to save face and keep the kids from worrying. Unfortunately, it also provides Wow with a big emotional moment that he not only can't pull off, but which frankly belongs in some other movie.
But when the film sticks to the broad comedy, the charm of the kids and the skating, it's insubstantial fun. The humor is rarely subtle. It's occasionally so fanciful -- for example, the way people react to the kids' archrival Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan, The United States of Leland) -- that it verges on the kind of casual fantasy that used to be fairly common in movies, but isn't much seen these days. The biggest laughs come from McBride, Nick Cannon and "guest stars" Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy, while the kids are left to carry the story and react in mildly humorous ways to the things around them. Generally smart and stylish direction from Lee smoothes over a lot of the movie's imperfections. And the upbeat tone -- where no one is ever really bad -- is surprisingly not saccharine.
The unfortunate thing about Roll Bounce is that it's marketed as a hip vehicle for Bow Wow and pitched to that demographic. In reality, it's about as hip as an episode of That's My Mama, meaning it's not likely to please its target audience and will just be overlooked as the perfectly decent family comedy it really is (there's really no reason it shouldn't have gotten a PG rather than a PG-13). Rated PG-13 for language and some crude humor.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke