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5/10/2013

Review: 'Peeples' starring Craig Robinson and Kerry Washington



Peeples begins with a crass, painfully unfunny song, sung to schoolchildren, about the benefits of holding in one's pee. It's a dubious start for a film that never seemed all that promising anyway, looking for all intents and purposes like an urban Meet the Parents, with all the deficiencies that comparison suggests. But what the scene does most efficiently is set straight those who showed up expecting to see Tyler Perry's creative fingerprints. Gone is Perry's usual brand of pseudo-religious, soap opera nonsense masquerading as poignant family drama. In its place is a lowbrow, sitcom-level bore that hints at tackling issues of class and race, but really has no interest in doing anything remotely challenging.

Robinson is a likable, outgoing guy with a big personality, and for his first real crack at playing the leading man he deserves much better material to work with. Unfortunately, promising writer/director Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) pulls every familiar trick Robinson plays Wade Keller, who much like Robinson is an affable, regular guy who loves his career as a motivational speaker for kids. Well, it's not really a career yet, but he wants it to be. Not really much of a market for a gig likes that, really. It makes him feel a little uncomfortable around his girlfriend Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), who comes from a hoity-toity rich family affectionately referred to as the "chocolate Kennedys". After a year of dating, Wade has still never met her parents, and thinking it may have something to do with his current station in life, he crashes a Peeples family get-together in upper-class Sag Harbor with plans of popping the big question. Think it goes well?

Depictions of successful African-American families are already rare on television, but they are borderline extinct in Hollywood, which is why it's so depressing that Chism paints the Peeples as little more than cardboard cutouts clad in Cosby sweaters. David Alan Grier plays the stern, stick-up-the-butt patriarch, Virgil, who has never heard a single word about Wade yet takes every opportunity to cut him down to size. He's the stereotypical father who sees himself and his gene pool as perfect, and a simple middle-class guy like Wade can only muck things up.

Things get heated as Wade ruins family outings, burns down sacred tee-pees, gets humped by dog, and accidentally reveals family secrets by being the most honest guy in the room. Chism actually does a nice job in depicting the many truths that families hide from one another to maintain a veneer of excellence, but the secrets being hidden are downright silly and never explored with any real depth. S. Epatha Merkerson plays the wife, Daphne, a former soul singer who gave up her career to be a mother. Having beaten back a bout of alcoholism in the past, she begins to backslide as family tensions increase, but it's never really taken very seriously. Amongst the other overstuffed subplots is a lesbian angle involving the daughter (Kali Hawk) and her co-worker; the son (a badly miscast Tyler James Williams) is a kleptomaniac; and Virgil seems to be hiding something, as well.

While most of the cast make the most out of a lackluster script, it's disappointing to see Washington in role that is so badly under-written. Her character has absolutely no personality whatsoever beyond being the object of Wade's desire. This becomes painfully obvious as Wade's bumbling attempts to propose are met by one ridiculous obstacle after another. Why is he bothering to put up with all this crap? Why is she worth it? Ok, so that question is partially answered during one inspired scene that ends with some playful spanking, but otherwise Grace is just a woman (apparently with an awful lot of ex-boyfriends) who has been lying to him for over a year. For Wade to react realistically to that would be to take Peeples down a path Chism clearly doesn't want to go. Why do that when we can hear Wade's "Speak It, Don't Leak It" one more time?

Screen legends Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll turn up and immediately class things up; him with his unbridled cool and her with her elegance and presence. They don't get much to do, and frankly they don't really need to do much but be themselves. While it's a treat to see so much great black talent gathered together, it also emphasizes just how much of a laborious, stale let down Peeples ultimately is.