The year is 1978, and Xavier (Bow Wow) and his friends are mourning the loss of the neighborhood roller rink. Searching for greener pastures, the boys bus themselves over to Sweetwater, the big city rink that hosts the roller-skating champion, Sweetness (superbly played by Wesley Jonathan). Dealing with potential girlfriends (Meagan Good), his stern father (Chi McBride), and grief for his dead mother, Xavier finds even more headaches when he enters into competition with Sweetness for king of the rink, and the outlook doesn't look good for the amateur skater.
When one thinks of the late 1970s, the sight of a smiling person, clad in polyester, and gliding around on roller skates has to be one of the preeminent images that comes to mind. Not since the one-two punch of 1979's "Roller Boogie" and 1980's "Xanadu" has roller-skating been more affectionately realized than in Malcolm D. Lee's "Roll Bounce" (IMDb listing).
"Bounce" is a cheerful film, gregariously attempting to capture that small moment in time when roller skating was king. Lee ("The Best Man," "Undercover Brother"), a child of the '70s, is thorough in his re-creation of the era, and he gives heavy screentime to the pop culture of the moment: Atari, "Star Wars" posters, old Pepsi cans, and afros. Lots of afros. Lee isn't afraid to get silly with "Bounce," encouraging his actors to go broad in the roller rink sequences, and bringing in Wayne Brady (as the rink D.J.) and Nick Cannon (as the roller-skate manager) to make sure the audience knows that the film is a comedy, regardless if they can't generate a single laugh between them.
However, as much as Lee is trying to drink in the neon glow of idealized childhood, he's also under the impression that he must engage the heart. One minute the games of snaps are flying furiously, and the next feature stark moments of Xavier trying to deal with his mother's death. While the performances are solid, the contrast between the bipolar moods of "Bounce" is far too great for the film to support, and it constipates the pace of the film to routinely bounce back and forth between domestic drama and era-specific silliness. In his desperate quest to inject some audience-pleasing sympathy into the script, Lee frequently blocks the sheer fun of the project, which is the only element he has in his favor.
I'm also surprised that Lee didn't take more care with his dialog. With a film that is straining to recreate the 1970s in every way, Lee allows his cast to speak as if the film were shot two weeks ago, with liberal use of modern slang and exclamation. It certainly snaps the mind out of the 1970s, which appears to go against Lee's intentions.
The highlights of the film are the skate sequences, and they're handled well by the production. Backed by a predictable, but warmly recognizable funk, disco, and soft-rock soundtrack, "Bounce" is wonderful just watching the dancing and gliding on the rink. And while the actors are clearly being helped on the skates, they sell the joy of the sport well, especially Bow Wow, who has never been this likable onscreen before. Lee's fondness for the roller rink culture is infectious, and "Roll Bounce" only comes alive when Lee pays attention to the magic of the skates. It's just a crime that Lee is too frightened to completely give himself over to the moment.
Filmfodder Grade: C