Obvious, crass, derivative and often offensive, The Cookout opened to really bad reviews. It indeed fits all of those adjectives, but there's no denying that it does provide some true laughs and, incredibly, some real humanity. This last quality is mostly provided by the ever-reliable Jenifer Lewis, who is quite magnificent as Lady Em, the mother of Todd (Storm P), a suddenly wealthy basketball star. "Low-sodium ham?" she shrieks at Todd's golddigger girlfriend, Brittany (lovely Meagan Good), whom she's sent out on a shopping errand. "Sodium! Sodium! Sodium!" she cries, pointing at the macaroni and cheese and collard greens on her table. "There is no such thing as a 'healthy' cookout! Todd has eaten so much sodium, he could crap a salt lick!" And later, extolling the "Three F's" of any successful gathering-"Food, Family and Fun"-her voice has the movingly ringing authority of gospel.

The cookout in question is a gathering of Todd's family, a rowdy lot consisting of mugging hillbillies, a pair of obese cousins, talented Denee Busby as a hoochie with a passel of no-name brats, and rapper Ja Rule, playing a crasher with the unimaginative name of Bling Bling and a carload of sneakers for Todd to sign. To put it kindly, Lance Rivera is not the most elegant of directors, and he lenses this gallery of clowns with muddy, cheap-looking photography. There is the usual surfeit of fart and doo-doo jokes, which permeate this genre. It's a real shame that the team of six writers (including producer/co-star Queen Latifah) still must resort to the kind of low humor that keeps Bill Cosby up at nights.

The writing is best when it focuses on the women: There's a blistering powder-room exchange between Busby and Good ("Game recognizes game"), as well as a hilarious encounter between Busby and Latifah, enjoying herself playing an overeager security guard. A scarily cosmetically altered Farrah Fawcett manages to be funny in a tackily conceived role as a bigoted neighbor, somehow married to a real Oreo of a husband (Danny Glover, who looks like he should be more embarrassed). Tim Meadows, who for years was resolutely unfunny on "Saturday Night Live," remains likewise here, as a wannabe lawyer. Eve does her usual thing as a blandly all-purpose dream girl, who conveniently enters at the last minute and saves Todd from Brittany's clutches.

-David Noh