By Stephen Farber
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Is there nothing new under the sun, or are today’s filmmakers depressingly short of original ideas?
This question arises while watching “Dirty Laundry,” a comedy-drama with alarming similarities to a relic from 1976, “Norman, Is That You?” In that film, Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey were parents shocked to discover that their son was gay and living with a white lover. That’s basically the same gimmick in this new film from writer-director Maurice Jamal.
Loretta Devine plays the matriarch of a Southern clan who is blind to her son’s sexual orientation when he comes for a visit. The only addition to the stew is a bit left over from “The Birdcage”: When Sheldon (Rockmond Dunbar), a New York magazine writer, returns to his provincial clan in Georgia, he learns that he has a son from a one-night stand many years ago. As he tries to adjust to that discovery, his lover from New York shows up to complicate relations with his unruly extended family.
It may be that Jamal, who also co-stars as Sheldon’s macho brother, tries to wear too many hats. The script actually has a number of promising characters, including Sheldon’s sister and her sassy daughter; a highfalutin, hypocritical aunt (Jenifer Lewis); and a bunch of local yokels. Sheldon’s effeminate lover, Ryan (Joey Costello), at first seems to be a stereotypical gay character, but when he coaches Sheldon’s niece for a dance recital, Ryan proves to be more stalwart than first impressions suggested.
What sinks the movie is Jamal’s ham-fisted direction. Much of “Dirty Laundry” plays like a theater piece, with long, static scenes that are clumsily staged and poorly shot. The film cries out for cinematic energy. There’s one clever structural choice, when the film at one point jumps into flashback to show Sheldon’s life in New York. But even here, it misses an opportunity to skewer the chic Manhattan magazine world. Sheldon’s imperious editor is a potentially amusing character drawn much too broadly.
Performances are highly uneven. Dunbar comes off best; he’s the one actor who works with subtlety and manages to convey Sheldon’s perplexity while always retaining a measure of dignity. Devine and Lewis are fun, but their performances need to be taken down by several decibels. In fact, most of the actors could benefit from more adept direction.
Technically, the film is crude, with black-and-white flashbacks that add nothing to the brew. The film’s plea for tolerance is commendable but would have more weight if only it were executed with more panache. While some family stories aimed at black audiences (like the recent hit “This Christmas”) have drawn an underexploited audience, “Dirty Laundry” is far too primitive to match the success of its predecessors.
Sheldon: Rockmond Dunbar
Evelyn: Loretta Devine
Aunt Letty: Jenifer Lewis
Jackie: Terri J. Vaughn
Eugene: Maurice Jamal
Ryan: Joey Costello
Gabriel: Aaron Grady Shaw
Director-screenwriter: Maurice Jamal; Producers: Rockmond Dunbar, Re’Shaun Frear, Andre Robert Lee; Executive producers: Crystal McCrary Anthony, Gabrielle Glore, Maurice Jamal, Adrienne Lopez, Nathan Hale Williams; Directors of photography: Rory King, Liz Rubin; Production designer: Norval Johnson; Co-producers: Gene Graham, Tsia Moses, La Rivers; Costume designers: Lawrence Roach, Nicholaus Stansberry; Editor: Gene Graham.