Tyler Perry’s name is plastered so prominently all over the marketing for Peeples, it’s almost impossible not to mistake it for another one of the doggedly prolific one-man-band’s semi-annual forays behind the camera. But as it turns out, Perry only produced and “presented” Peeples (whatever the latter means), and it’s probably the least Tyler Perry-ish movie that he’s ever been associated with—as long as we’re not counting his whatzit cameo in 2009’s Star Trek.
For starters, it’s competently made. The directorial debut of screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism, who previously penned the much-loved 2002 Drumline, as well as 2006’s ATL, Peeples is brisk, affectionate mainstream entertainment. A far cry from Perry’s punitive churchiness, the film contains no violent tonal shifts, not a single morality lecture, and only one (rather ill-judged) moment in which a man dons women’s clothing. It’s just warm and funny. I liked it quite a bit.
Craig Robinson, that big ol’ teddy bear with the whispery voice, looks thrilled to be free from the agonizing death throes of NBC’s The Office. He stars here as Wade Walker, an ebullient children’s party entertainer who sings songs advising little ones to speak their mind when they have to use the potty. Robinson so often comes across as an oversized child himself, so the gig is a natural fit.
Though he has aspirations of becoming a child therapist (Wade’s unlicensed and has no formal education, so he currently calls his advice “kounciling with a K”), this is hardly a career trajectory to match that of his girlfriend, Grace Peeples, a super-successful New York City lawyer played by Kerry Washington. She comes from such an extremely wealthy and accomplished family, Grace has conveniently forgotten to tell them about her new boyfriend.
The Peeples clan reunites every summer at their Sag Harbor vacation house for the town’s celebration of Moby Dick Day, where family patriarch, federal judge and pillar of the community Virgil Peeples, played by a slyly amusing David Alan Grier, dresses up like Ahab and reads from Melville. Pointedly uninvited by Grace, Wade decides to crash the weekend party with an engagement ring in his pocket. Head over heels in love, he’s determined to make a good impression on these folks he calls “the chocolate Kennedys.” It doesn’t go so well.
If this sounds like Meet the Parents, that’s because basically it is. (I was snickeringly reminded of the old crack by my pal, critic Odie Henderson, about movies like Johnson Family Vacation and Death at a Funeral being “colorizations” of hit white comedies.) But Peeples is far better-natured than the Ben Stiller squirmfest. I don’t think Craig Robinson has the capacity for self-loathing.
Grier’s Virgil is a bully and a blowhard, demanding that even his own children call him “Judge.” But beneath all his pompous affectations and rigidly enforced traditions, this seemingly perfect family is swarming with secrets. Mom (S. Epatha Merkerson) is a former disco diva, who, after several stints in rehab, has now taken up “holistic medicine” in a garden that’s hardly in adherence with 12-step programs. Daughter Gloria (Kali Hawk) is a CNN reporter who was embedded in Iraq with her “best friend” Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis) in more ways than one. Son Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a science prodigy and also a kleptomaniac. Even stodgy Virgil steps out every night, pretending to be playing saxophone at a local tavern. But you won’t find him there.
Always putting his best foot forward and inevitably falling on his face, Wade stumbles over these revelations with increasing exasperation. If there is a limit on the variations possible in eye-rolling reaction shots, Robinson hasn’t found it yet. The game supporting cast gets into the silly groove, and, in a wonderful bit of casting, Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll drop by for a scene as Grandpa and Grandma Peeples. It’s a treat to watch the elderly Sweet Sweetback passive-aggressively terrorize every man in his sight, and Carroll gets a terrific moment, revealing that she’s the only one of these Peeples who knows what’s really up.
I could have done without a couple of the broader slapstick moments. An obviously improv-heavy set-piece in a sweat lodge veers a bit out of Chism’s control, and the movie is much funnier when it stays grounded in reality. The best running gag has Wade running into Grace’s ex-boyfriends, who are all at least twice her age. (Robinson calmly responds by asking if she also dated George Washington Carver and W.E.B. Du Bois.)
Modest in aspiration, Peeples is by no means a must-see movie, but it’s awfully charming all the same. It confirms that Tina Gordon Chism is a talent to keep an eye on. And hopefully someday soon, we’ll see her name on the posters instead of Tyler Perry’s.