By Dan Simolke | Shadow and Act May 10, 2013 at 10:22AM
Is this Craig Robinson’s first step toward becoming the black Kevin James, at least in terms of leading “play-it-safe” mainstream comedies? It could be, but the other career choices he’s made lead me to believe his destination will prove decidedly more interesting. Being a part of the Apatow crew has given him a few unique comedic roles (he’s one of the better aspects of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s fitfully hilarious, but uneven, “This Is the End,” which opens June 13th and happens to contain one of the most unexpected cameos of all-time) and he’s consistently one of the most relatable characters on “The Office.” He brings his nice guy chops to “Peeples,” and while the results are often humorous, the movie itself is highly generic and might as well be a remake of “Meet the Parents.”
Robinson plays Wade Walker, a guy who teaches young children how to express themselves by playing goofy songs about how to avoid wetting one’s pants, etc. He’s dating the, presumably, slightly out of his league, Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), and has plans to propose. Of course, she doesn’t know this, and making the situation even more precarious is the fact that Wade hasn’t met her family yet (dubbed the “chocolate Kennedys” here). When she goes to visit them one weekend he decides to show up and make a good impression, theoretically topping things off by popping the question.
Potential spoiler: things don’t go as planned!
What “Peeples” gets right is its casting. Not even just the casting itself, but the room the actors get to be goofy. There’s a scene where Robinson gets mad after running into two of Washington’s old boyfriends (who are also older men) and when he brings it up with her she addresses it, and then casually gets on her bike to catch up with the rest of the family. But then the camera just stays on Robinson. He’s still mad about it and he just moves around in an odd manner, basically talking to himself before getting on his bike. I could barely hear what he was saying because the audience was laughing so much, but simply watching him move was hilarious. There are a couple moments like this where a scene goes on for what would normally be too long, but it usually works because of the actor’s enthusiasm.
Back to the casting itself, David Alan Grier is the unreasonably stern, but secretly flawed, dad, Virgil. He’s good in the role, but the character is mostly one-note. S. Epatha Merkerson is spot-on at playing the one-time disco queen/recovering alcoholic mom, and Tyler James Williams (Chris from “Everybody Hates Chris”) has a dorky charm as the brother. The funniest turn from the supporting cast comes from Malcolm Barrett, playing Wade’s brother, who reminded me a bit of Dave Chappelle here. He’s perfect for the “absurd sidekick” role.
Writer-director, Tina Gordon Chism (making her directorial-debut), clearly knows how to structure a conventional screenplay (she also scripted “ATL” and Drumline”) but my, the plot points are predictable. Grace’s reporter sister, Gloria (played by Kali Hawk, who is honestly so gorgeous it’s almost distracting any time she’s onscreen) has been coming home with her camerawoman for years and no one in the nuclear family has taken a hint. Wade also says it’s not going to rain in one scene, and then… well I’d prefer not to tell. There are several things like this in the script, where the audience knows what’s coming long before it does, and it gets a bit tiresome. The movie also loses its rhythm in the third-act, where it reaches its calculable conclusion quickly and awkwardly.
Technically, the film is nothing to write home about. The production values are not high, and the camera work is about as standard “back-and-forth” as you can get, but ultimately these things don’t have a detrimental effect on the movie. Plus, when the legendary Melvin Van Peebles has a small role in a movie in 2013, you can forgive a few cinematic shortcomings.
“Peeples” is a reasonably fun, non-offensive matinee flick. It has just enough oddball aspects to keep it from being completely run of the mill, and the actors (and what I would imagine is Chism’s direction of those actors) deliver in unexpected ways. I hope Robinson’s stock as an actor continues to rise, and honestly, who doesn’t want that to happen? He has such an immediately likeable presence onscreen. Plus, his delivery of the line: “You used to not give a fuck about discretion!” in “Pineapple Express” is probably the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. He deserves continued success for that alone. In fact, I even like to pretend he wrote it.
Grade: a solid C+