Friday, May 10, 2013

Peeples

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Tina Gordon Chism's new comedy, PEEPLES, conforms to a familiar comedic template: fish-out-of-water suitor tries to win the approval of a demanding prospective father-in-law. Unlike other (that is, white) versions of this oft-told tale, like MEET THE PARENTS, Gordon Chism brings to hers a subtle, offbeat charm. It's an auspicious directing debut for Gordon Chism, who cut her teeth writing for The Cosby Show. Her writing projects intelligence, warmth and an ability to bring freshness to seemingly shopworn ideas.

The movie also benefits from an accomplished cast. The prospective son-in-law, Wade, is played by Craig Robinson, an improv comedian and actor best known from television's The Office, but who has been stealing scenes in movie comedies for years. My favorite is his club doorman in KNOCKED UP who apologetically explains to Lesley Mann that he can't let her in because “You old as fuck.” David Alan Grier is excellent as the stern Judge Peeples, a federal jurist and father of Wade's girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington). Grace, a lawyer, is so fearful of Daddy's disapproval she hasn't told him about her relationship with Wade, a school music therapist who entertains the kids with silly songs about self-expression and urination. (The role is tailor-made for Robinson, a onetime school music therapist.) Grace's mom, Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson, a stage actress known for Law & Order), is a recovered alcoholic with a penchant for homegrown "herbs." Grace's little brother, Simon (Everybody Hates Chris star Tyler James Williams) is a science prodigy with larcenous tendencies, and her sister, Gloria (Kali Hawk), is afraid to reveal to her dad that she's gay. The venerable Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll show up in small roles as Grace's grandparents.


Wade is unhappy that Grace has not introduced him to her family, an African American clan so New England-style ambitious that Wade calls them “The Chocolate Kennedys.” Engagement ring in his pocket, he takes it upon himself to follow Grace to her family's reunion in the Bar Harbor, Maine, where they gather every year to celebrate, of all things, “Moby Dick Day,” a whaling-themed event in honor of native son Herman Melville. Grace warns Wade to simply agree with everything Daddy says, but Wade prefers honesty. He quickly becomes an agent of chaos and revelation in a family where everyone, including the Judge, is hiding a secret.

As expected in this type of comedy, there's some broad physical comedy – Wade inadvertently burning down Daddy's cherished “sweat lodge” tent, for example – but the bulk of the humor is in the language and the characterizations, universal enough to be recognized by everyone but with particular soulful seasoning. On a trip to the market with the Peeples family, Wade meets two of Grace's former boyfriends, both older men. Wade teases Grace with extended improv-style jibes, calling her old beaux, among other names, “Uncle Ben and Bojangles.” Teenage Simon, pleased by the nickname Wade has given him (Sy), laments that his father gave him a nerdy white-sounding name. “He knew I was gonna grow up to be a black man!” Judge Peeples, who insists on being called “Judge” rather than “Mister,” lamenting the high expectations his father had of him. “I had to be Thurgood Marshall and John Coltrane. Now I have to be Muhammad Ali, too.” Merkerson's Daphne is particularly interesting, a woman whose vaguely sad cheerfulness hides her discontent after having given up a successful pop music career.

Music plays a large role in the movie, woven extensively into the story, and inevitably the cast members perform a song together at the end. In some movies, this kind of thing is embarrassing, but in PEEPLES, it's as fun and charming as everything that precedes it. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.



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