Craig Robinson very nearly saves Tina Gordon Chism’s Peeples, an initially funny but ultimately measly variation on Meet the Parents. Seeing as the gregarious comedian has routinely been one of the best parts of The Office and a standout presence in Hot Tub Time Machine, Pineapple Express, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, this doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, especially considering that Chism’s film is “presented” by noted pseudo-humorist Tyler Perry. Peeples, however, feels vaguely different from other Perry output early on, as the prolific multi-hyphenate mogul’s veil of aggressive Catholicism is gone, replaced by an unburdened, often dull sense of familial contentment.
Chism’s film even begins with a telling reversal. As heard over the opening credits, Robinson’s Wade Walker sounds like he’s warming up his pipes (and the organ pipes) for gospel, only to be revealed that he’s a children’s entertainer, singing about how open expression will help prevent wetting the bed. Indeed, Chism’s main concern is repression of emotions and the self, which is certainly not an issue for her protagonist. Like Robinson himself, Wade is an open, energetic, and warm entertainer, though he lacks clout and monetary success, which is of little issue to him or his girlfriend, Grace (Kerry Washington), a well-respected lawyer. And unlike Wade, Grace has a bit of an issue with secrecy, going so far as to belt out a safe word for whenever she wants a conversation to stop cold.
It’s not until Wade, on advice from his brother, Chris (Malcolm Barrett), drops in on a family weekend in Sag Harbor, in the hopes of proposing to Grace, that he realizes that her dislike for emotional transparency is a family affair. Headed by Virgil (David Alan Grier), a powerful federal judge, the Peeples family members are characterized by their barely concealed secrets, and Chism’s script gets an admirable amount of comic mileage out of these thin character conceits, helped immeasurably by a uniformly excellent cast. Virgil’s wife, Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson), is a recovering disco queen who’s replaced booze with shrooms and weed; Grace’s journalist sister, Gloria (Kali Hawk), is still in the closet about her camerawoman girlfriend, Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis); and young brother, Simon (Tyler James Williams), steals jewelry and money to impress girls.
Like Meet the Parents, the film is powered by the tension between overtly discerning father and belittled son-in-law, one that gains narrative thickness when Wade learns of Virgil’s nighttime getaways with the town mayor (Anna Gasteyer). Chism, however, broadens her view toward the middle of Peeples to include a visit from Chris and a trip to visit Grandpa Peeples (Melvin Van Peebles). In these sequences, the writer-director attempts a more democratic sense of storytelling, pairing off characters randomly throughout Grandpa’s house and, later, Virgil’s home. It’s a relatively ambitious move that, sadly, doesn’t pay off, largely because Chism’s entirely benign aesthetic loses its only mildly appealing facets—the sense of comic tension and place—in the trade.
Wade and Virgil rarely come into direct conflict in the second half, and the film instead busies itself with our big, lovable hero bringing his soon-to-be in-laws out of their respective closets. As Grier’s presence is incrementally diminished and softened, Chism’s film collapses into a series of clumsy improvisatory sketches, tied up in cheap, risibly sentimental catharsis. Though the director shows a far more liberated sense of sexuality than her producer-overlord, there’s still a sense of overt strategy when sex arises: A surprise threesome between Chris, Gloria, and Meg serves no purpose but to present Hawk in negligee, and Virgil’s nude night-swimming with other locals is utilized chiefly for its ability to spur dick jokes.
There’s one strong memorable sequence, wherein Grace implores Wade to relieve some stress through roleplaying, which feels equally frisky and free of narrative implement, but it’s Robinson and Washington alone who make it sing. Washington, like most of the supporting cast, is saddled with an underwritten role, but Robinson’s vital comic energy keeps the film at a kinetic narrative pace. He appears in nearly every scene and stirs the rest of the cast into robust humor and action, but he’s in direct opposition to the hurried, grossly false emotional currency that Chism and Perry are dealing in. The desperation to kowtow to a stale sense of (marital and narrative) comfort, in essence, boxes in the truly refreshing elements of Peeples.