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Review: Race And Class Issues Clash With Lowbrow Comedy In ‘Peeples’

Review: Race And Class Issues Clash With Lowbrow Comedy In 'Peeples'

You’d be forgiven if you expected
Tyler Perry to influence a large chunk of “Peeples,” the latest film to carry
his name like a neon sign promising broad comedy and aggressive but dubious
morality. Even the beginning seems to hum with the predictable rhythms of Perry’s
multi-movie empire, with a dark screen soundtracked to the purr of a man’s
voice introducing a particularly holy gospel tune. It’s a clever strategy for
writer-director Tina Gordon Chism, who soon reveals that this is comic actor Craig
Robinson
, crooning to a classroom filled with children about the need to avoid
urinating on others. At once, you’re assured that this film is going to explore
places Perry normally wouldn’t dare…and surely places maybe you wouldn’t seek
either.

Robinson stars as Wade Walker, a
children’s motivational singer (a booming industry, that) who fondles the
wedding ring in his pocket as he struggles with how to pop the question to girlfriend
Grace (Kerry Washington, luminous). Unfortunately, Walker still knows little of
her frequent sojourns upstate to see family, excursions where Walker is
apparently not invited. Though they share an improbable New York City apartment
– with their own elevator! – Walker feels like it’s a classist slight against
him, given that the apartment is filled with snapshots of what Walker refers to
as “the Chocolate Kennedys.” Empowered by his brother Chris (Malcolm Barrett),
Wade makes an impromptu visit to upper-crust Sag Harbor, where a legion of
sweater-clad 1%-ers celebrate Moby Dick Day while swaddled in Cosby sweaters.
 

And narratively, that’s pretty
much all the meat that’s on the bones of “Peeples,” which soon becomes a “Meet
The Parents
” redux. Wade soon learns that Grace’s parents have no knowledge of
his existence, but their reactions to him veer between broad comedy and
character-based intrigue. As played by comedy veteran David Alan Grier, father
Virgil is the typically humorless patriarch, insisting to this interloper that he
be called Judge. The tension rises between Virgil and Wade as Virgil is one of
those types reluctant to pass up an opportunity for a cutting insult, but while
most of the conflict between these two results in shtick, Grier never wavers in
playing his character as a serious person, a self-serious type who prides
himself on his exceptionalism. The vivacious S. Epatha Merkerson is a neater
fit as wife Daphne, her playful sweetness bringing a believable gravity to what
ends up being a landslide of comic incidence.

On the other hand, Washington
doesn’t get much to do other than appear beautiful, her Grace quickly fading
into the background, playing the straight woman to an escalating series of
hijinks. Secrets are revealed about a busier-than-expected love life before
meeting Wade, but it’s quickly brushed away as she becomes the least-important
portion of the story. She’s an object to be won by Wade, and as her personality
fades into the wallpaper, it begins to stick out that she’s spent a year hiding
Wade from her folks. Brushed off by the core story, this ends up being her
defining trait – why should Wade feel the need to be with this girl? Robinson
brings a bearish softness to his imposing frame, and his innate likability just
makes his pairing with the physically-dissimilar Washington even crueler. The
class difference between the two of them would be more pronounced, perhaps, if
it weren’t for that apartment elevator back in the city. But building a
romantic bond between the two of them and the audience is complicated by Chism’s
devotion to the joke; by the time wise-cracking Chris arrives to Sag Harbor
unannounced, the story’s been huffing and puffing to get more mileage from this
family clash.

The sense of history and legacies
that is reflected in Chism’s film makes one wish this had been a drama instead.
Kudos are deserved by the casting of luminaries Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann
Carroll
as the Peeples grandparents, not only giving a deeper suggestion to
these roots of exceptionalism, but also revealing the Peeples’ potential place in
cinematic history: respectful depictions of upper-class black families are
exceedingly rare in mainstream cinema, and entirely necessary given we’ve
raised a P.C. generation on the notion that tokenism equals representation.
There’s an equal level of affection given towards Daphne’s past as a one-time
disco superstar. When Wade boasts of remembering her record, it’s not simple
fandom, but the explicit acknowledgement that her work was integral to his
musical background. At times, “Peeples” says so much about communities and
foundations built and enhanced by future generations that you wish it also didn’t
bend over backwards to present gags about nudist beaches and threesomes, not to
mention repeated plays of Wade’s kids-centric motivational song. The cast alone
deserves to be recognized more than the notes of “Speak It, Don’t Leak It.” And
yet, here I am, humming it. [C+]
 

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