Craig Robinson, whose heightened profile on The Office has been one of the show’s better developments in recent seasons, steps up to topline a big-screen comedy with Peeples. His character is a hapless good guy, hoping to make a good impression on his girlfriend’s high-achieving family. He’s a man trapped, metaphorically, in hostile territory, much as the talented Robinson is trapped in a formulaic movie.
The feature is a product of 34th Street Films, Tyler Perry’s specialty shingle, though the specialty angle is hard to figure when the material is so broad. Built to be a crowd-pleaser, Tina Gordon Chism’s directing debut is sure to click with Gatsby-indifferent moviegoers when it opens wide on Friday. More leading roles for Robinson will no doubt follow, and it can only be hoped that he’ll find better vehicles for his comedy chops.
As Wade Walker, an aspiring children’s counselor who’s working as an entertainer, Robinson delivers exuberantly stylized musical numbers that convey bizarre educational messages: He encourages kids who are long past potty training not to pee in inappropriate places. That’s one of a few loopy elements that Chism (who wrote the 2002 feature Drumline) works into her screenplay. Another is a onetime whaling community’s Moby-Dick Day celebration (don’t ask). The performers are up to the wacko task. But one of the movie’s key problems is that it only pretends to let loose, its calculated absurdity firmly tethered to the ife lessons that lie in wait, ready to wrap everything up all nice and warm.
The meet-the-parents premise finds Wade ready to propose to his girlfriend of a year, Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), a New York attorney who has yet to introduce him to her folks. After she takes off for an annual family get-together in the Hamptons, Wade shows up uninvited, determined to pop the question and charm his way into the Peeples’ good graces.
The instant he arrives at the waterfront mansion in Sag Harbor, it’s cookie-cutter-clear that it won’t be easy for him to achieve his goal. Cue the aggressively horny dog who complicates Wade’s entrance — and then conveniently disappears until plot mechanics necessitate the canine’s return.
Wade’s No. 1 problem is Grace’s dad, Virgil (David Alan Grier), a federal judge who’s so outrageously overbearing, humorless, hypocritical and self-important that he might as well be wearing a sign: “About to be brought down a peg, and taught a lesson or two about what really matters.”
As exaggerated as Virgil is on paper and in Grier’s performance, there’s psychological logic at play: It’s clear why both his daughters have hesitated to reveal much about their private lives. Grace hasn’t told him about Wade, and Gloria (Kali Hawk), a CNN reporter, is afraid to reveal the true nature of her relationship with her camerawoman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis). That it’s evident to everyone but her parents and siblings is one of the truths the film gets — the false fronts and willful blindness that can define family.
Virgil’s openhearted wife, Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson), might have sparked to the truth about her children, but the former pop diva is busy hiding her own secret, as is her son, Simon (Tyler James Williams). The 16-year-old, who instantly takes to Wade — “You sensed my swag” — shoots music videos in his bedroom that may not be entirely believable, but they’re welcome breaks from the thoroughly unbelievable interactions among the grownups, not least of which is a ridiculous subplot involving Virgil and the town’s mayor (Ana Gasteyer).
The film’s first half is a slog as Chism sets up the minefield for Wade, with every (fully visible) mine certain to explode. The laughs that do register, in the later going, are thanks to the cast’s comic timing and delivery, with Malcolm Barrett getting to bust some moves as Wade’s joker of a brother. Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll appear briefly as the predictably youthful-wise Peeples grandparents.
As with much of the Perry studio’s output, production values are not a strong suit, though Rick Butler’s interior design is elegant and effective. But the lighting is often flat, and the widescreen format goes to waste, with a good portion of the camerawork devoted to clunky back-and-forth reaction shots. Even with its autumn trees, the lovely seaside locale (the Connecticut shore subs for the Long Island setting) look drab.
Production company: 34th Street Films
Cast: Craig Robinson, Kerry Washington, David Alan Grier, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tyler James Williams, Kali Hawk, Kimrie Lewis-Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Diahann Carroll
Writer-director: Tina Gordon Chism
Producers: Tyler Perry, Stephanie Allain, Paul Hall, Ozzie Areu, Matt Moore
Executive producers: Michael Paseornek, Preston Holmes, Charles S. Dutton, Sherry Marsh
Director of photography: Alexander Gruszynski
Production designer: Rick Butler
Music: Aaron Zigman
Co-producer: H.H. Cooper
Costume designer: Paul Simmons
Editor: David Moritz
MPAA rating: PG-13, 95 min.