Blame the Fockers. Maybe blame Tyler Perry. Just not for the same problems. The Meet the Parents-based franchise has spawned a sitcom-based mini-genre involving weddings, misunderstandings and culture clashes, and so far the pile-up includes Jumping the Broom (funny and underrated), The Big Wedding (has its moments) and That's My Boy (let's pretend it never happened). Meanwhile Perry's domination of the box office for African-American film feels like it crowds out the contributions of all other black voices at the multiplex. So what happens when Perry produces and presents -- but doesn't write or direct or star in -- a comedy that combines broad Fockers silliness with the occasional flashes of energetic wit that made Jumping the Broom so much fun? Well, a nice career boost for writer-director Tina Gordon Chism for starters.
Moviegoing audiences get so little in the way of black film that it feels like a duty to over-praise a movie like this, if for no other reason than the fact that it's not written, directed by and starring Perry. And when he's not in full command the movie in question forgets to include the usual Perry obsessions, stuff like religion as an amorphous answer to any sort of problem, rigid rules about relationship behavior for men and women or giving characters AIDS to punish them for having unmarried sex (Temptation, For Colored Girls...). Instead what's offered here is a fairly by-the-numbers plot involving creative-class Wade (Craig Robinson, The Office) and his lawyer fiancee Grace (Kerry Washington, Scandal) spending a weekend together with her rich, Sag Harbor-based family, known to Wade as "The Chocolate Kennedys." The funny stuff revolves around exactly what you think it does: misunderstandings, slapstick humiliations and seemingly intelligent human beings behaving in ways that suggest they've been bonked on the head with too many comedy anvils.
But Peeples detours from its producer's template thanks to Chism, who allows her cast -- David Alan Grier as the surly dad, Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles as the with-it grandparents and S. Epatha Merkerson as the mom who was once an Amii Stewart-ish disco diva -- to play through the stock situations and arrive at actual comedy. Robinson, especially, manages to throw curve balls at the lowest-brow of setups and turn them into smarter, offbeat gestures. When he tries on Merkerson's glittery vintage headdress and lip-syncs her big hit, it plays as goofy instead of emasculating. And Chism's script occasionally allows the audience the opportunity not to pretend that they know less about the real world than they actually do. Robinson and Washington's couple are adults who live together without the film needing to judge them for it, there are lesbian characters who don't require the services of a good man to set them on the right path and, upon discovering that Washington's exes include a variety of older men, Robinson trots out a laundry list of potential other dating partners that includes W.E.B. Du Bois and George Washington Carver. It's a comedy that thinks you paid attention during American History class. That's practically enough reason to like it all by itself.
It hits as often as it misses, but it's amiable and pleasant; sometimes it's even laugh out loud funny. Best of all, it trusts you to know your own mind, values and sense of humor. But if all that sounds horrible to you, there's always a repeat of House of Payne right there on your TV. I just caught an episode last week where they warn the college-bound son not to run around with loose women or else he'll die (yes, from that). Not kidding.