Film Review: Peeples

In a comedic rite of passage—meeting the folks—complicated by class barriers, Craig Robinson flails around in 'Peeples.' Sometimes it produces laughs.

Billed as taking place in the snooty Hamptons, most of Peeples is actually set in Sag Harbor, town sign prominently displayed, and known to summer people as the un-Hamptons. Yet to the cognoscenti, it’s where many wealthy and aristocratic African-Americans have homes. And often, too, they have more rigorously observed manners and methods than monied WASPs.

Not to worry. Peeples is not a Jane Austen re-do for African-Americans, but another take on that universal, anxiety-producing ritual immortalized in Meet the Parents. Wade (Craig Robinson of “The Office”) is in love with Grace (Kerry Washington of “Scandal”) and knows he has to impress her parents before she’ll say yes to the modest engagement ring he totes around in his pocket. And it is true silly-season fare: broad comedy with sketches and screw-ups so predictable you can see them coming way before the jitney arrives to take Grace away for the weekend, and spot them on the horizon before the boat arrives at the home of the redoubtable Judge Virgil Peeples (David Alan Grier) with lobster fest and annual family get-together in the works. The dog will run away with a wallet leaving the déclassé suitor penniless, said suitor will make one gaffe after the other in attempting to impress Dad, suitor will be humbled, and guy will somehow get girl—though in this case she has been keeping their relationship secret, due to Fear of Father.

Robinson is credible, sometimes touching, as a working-class dude with a job entertaining kids as a way of paying for college and a potential career as a counselor. (The movie begins with him singing a tune to a bunch of cute youngsters who look a little old for lyrics about potty training.) Though he and Grace, a well-paid lawyer, live together in a swank Manhattan apartment, he has yet to meet her family; he calls them “the Chocolate Kennedys.” It’s hard to say how this would go over in a mainly Caucasian movie; as it is, it’s great that African-Americans are feeling so good about themselves these days they can send themselves up. The primarily African-American screening audience I saw the movie with seemed tickled.

Wade’s brother Chris (Malcolm Barrett) talks Wade into going after Grace to propose as planned, and so he turns up, or rather washes up, on the Peeples’ lawn unannounced (and mid-film Chris will also arrive uninvited to check up on his brother’s progress). Bumbling along in his attempt to impress the sometimes arrogant Virgil who loves to one-up and always win, Wade stumbles upon numerous family secrets, which the Peeples have been sweeping under the rug, another of their family traditions. Still, writer-director Tina Gordon Chism—her first time out, and under the umbrella of Tyler Perry’s company and thus the film’s alternate title, Tyler Perry Presents Peeples—has nailed a number of the habits of what used to be called preppies, yuppies or buppies. Disdaining flash, they wear only Timex watches. They are honor-bound high achievers who look everyone straight in the eye and never lie. Except maybe to themselves.

Of the skits that meander by, the wittiest centers on Grace’s younger sister Gloria (Kali Hawk), who has been bringing home her “best friend” from Smith College for nine years but won’t admit to being a lesbian. Forget telling the family. When Chris makes a pass at her, she has impeccable manners in asking in the politest, most self-effacing way if he wouldn’t mind a threesome, just, you know, to get her going. But other scenarios are sloppy spoofs. S. Epatha Merkerson is awkward as Mom, a former alcoholic whose “organic” substitute drink laced with pot is accidentally chugged by Wade. This results in a ludicrous stoned sequence and pseudo-duel between Virgil and Wade at the annual town “Moby Dick Day.” Somehow, Diahann Carroll keeps her dignity in a small part as the matriarch/grandmother, married to a sprightly Melvin Van Peebles playing Virgil’s own nagging dad (in case you were curious how Virgil got that way). Better off wondering how a federal judge could afford the mansion on the water, or how any of them got away with their behavior for so long: secret, sometimes kinky sex lives; denied breast augmentation; kleptomania; booze and drug addiction; and a hidden nocturnal life for the Judge as he prowls the beach.
Some laughs, some kerplunks, and Craig Robinson fans will be happy to wait for his mean disco-queen impersonation. Though that’s not how he gets to instruct the Peeples a little bit about his own values.