Still, even though it's rote and by-the-numbers, a Fokker-free "Peeples" made me laugh
There’s a certain brand of comedy that’s practically a genre unto itself – call it “Pre-Marital Mishaps on the Cape.” They involve an impending wedding, embarrassment, awkward revelations, accidental ingestion of controlled substances and a clash of cultures and/or classes, all in a picturesque seaside setting.
You loved this movie when it was called “Meet the Parents,” you possibly missed out on a very good version of it entitled “Jumping the Broom” and you may still regret walking in on the one bearing the name “That’s My Boy,” but you know the plot beats before you’ve even bought your ticket. What these movies boil down to, since surprise plays no role, is whether or not you laugh.
“Peeples” made me laugh. It’s often rote and by-the-numbers, sure, but writer-director Tina Gordon Chism (the scenarist of “Drumline” and “ATL” makes her behind-the-camera debut here) injects the proceedings with enough smart chat, clever situations and spot-on casting choices to make this well-traveled road feel a little less stale.
Our proletarian hero is Wade (Craig Robinson), who hopes one day to be a child psychologist but currently writes ditties about bodily functions aimed at the pre-school set. He’s been living with his lawyer-at-the-U.N. girlfriend Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), but on the weekend he’s planning to pop the question, she heads out to Sag Harbor to spend time with her immediate family, an imposing clan whom Wade refers to as the “chocolate Kennedys.”
Naturally, he heads out to the Hamptons to surprise her, only to discover that she has never mentioned him to any of the Peeples: not her federal-judge father Virgil (David Alan Grier) or her retired disco-diva mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) or her CNN-correspondent sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) or her nerdy, kleptomaniac little brother Simon (Tyler James Williams, the now-teenaged former star of “Everybody Hates Chris”).
Cue mishaps, misunderstandings and misapprehensions, with Wade constantly tripping over himself trying to make a good impression while discovering that the venerable Peeples all have secrets of their own.
You’ll see most of this coming, but thankfully the screenplay is by Gordon Chism and not “presenter” Tyler Perry; that means we get witty repartee (when Wade learns Grace used to date lots of older guys, he unleashes a barrage of hilarious insults that include references to Shirley Chisholm, Benjamin Banneker and the background dancers from the “Thriller” video) and non-hysterical handling of the revelations regarding Gloria and her “friend” Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis).
(If this film and “Precious” are any indication, LGBT characters get much better treatment in films presented by Perry than they do in the ones written and directed by the bachelor auteur.)
The cast sells the material at both its strongest and weakest. Robinson has proven himself an adept second banana on “The Office” and in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” but here he balances a sweet disposition with just enough comic face-pulling to shine as a leading man. (The moment where he lip-syncs to one of Daphne’s old hits is both sublimely silly and fearless.)
Grace is probably written the wobbliest of the major characters, but Washington makes it work; once again she’s asked to squeeze into fetish wear, but she looks way more comfortable in this movie’s schoolgirl outfit than she did all leathered up in “A Thousand Words.” Grier spends most of the movie in a slow burn, but he conducts the ebb and flow of Virgil’s fury with the skill of an orchestra leader. (Also stealing scenes in the small role of Wade’s brother Chris is “Better Off Ted” co-star Malcolm Barrett.)
Kudos to “Peeples” for pairing Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll as Virgil’s parents; they seemed at diametric poles of the culture 35 years ago, but his blaxploitation urtext “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song” and her mainstream sitcom “Julia” were both integral steps forward for African-Americans in film and television.
While it would have been great for “Peeples” to dig further for some of its hilarity – there are subplots regarding Ana Gasteyer as the town mayor, as well as a local celebration of “Moby Dick,” that don’t really go anywhere – the movie doesn’t feel like a cheat. Just enjoy it as a Fokker-free Fokker film.