After dozens of airings on cable and two unnecessary sequels, it's easy to forget how well-constructed the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents truly is. The screenwriters and director just twist the screws on Ben Stiller's character until he is pushed over the edge, before finally giving him a well-earned happy ending. To call Peeples, the directorial debut of writer Tina Gordon Chism (ATL), the black version of Meet the Parents would seem lazy of me... if Chism hadn't so lazily lifted many of her film's situations from that film, without imposing the same kind of rigorous farcical structure that it has.
The Office's Craig Robinson plays Wade who, like Ben Stiller's male nurse, does world-bettering work that might seem less than dignified to outside eyes. In Wade's case, he provides a kind of musical therapy for children, composing songs like "Speak It, Don't Leak It" to get kids to talk about repressed feelings instead of acting out by peeing on things. Watching Robinson give his all while performing this dumb song in front of a crowd of kids, I simultaneously wished he had been given a funnier song to sing and wondered if this peeing thing was really such an epidemic that twenty-five kids could relate to it. Meanwhile, Wade's brother Chris (Malcolm Barrett) is employed as a doll doctor for a toy company, meaning he dresses in hospital scrubs and receives broken toys to be fixed. Again, I am left to wonder: is this a real job that people have? Of course, the whole doll "doctor" thing will play into the plot later.
Wade wants to propose to his girlfriend Grace Peeples (Scandal's Kerry Washington), but she has to go off to the Hamptons because her dad wants all the family together to celebrate the annual Moby Dick Day (many unfunny jokes are made about it being a "big" Dick Day). Spurred on by Chris, Wade decides to follow Grace to the family gathering in the Hamptons and propose to her there. The main thing standing in his way is his own personal Robert De Niro, Judge Virgil Peeples, played by David Alan Grier. Now to compare David Alan Grier to Robert De Niro is unfair, but even compared to someone like John Witherspoon (Friday), Grier seems comparatively miscast as the stern dad type.
As in Meet the Parents, Peeples starts to get really funny once all the characters are gathered around the dinner table. In addition to Grace and Virgil, there is ex-disco queen matriarch Daphne (Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson), reticent brainiac little brother Simon (Everybody Hates Chris's Tyler James Williams), CNN correspondent sister Gloria (Kali Hawk), and Gloria's camerawoman Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis). Wade innocently suggests that everyone share what they love about someone else at the table, which unintentionally triggers the family members to almost reveal each other's big secrets. In one clever twist, everyone in the family lies about themselves (Daphne is in AA but she grows her own drugs in the garden, Simon is an amateur thief, and Gloria has been dating Meg for years) and it is these lies that backfire on Wade as the scapegoat, piling up to belittle him in Virgil's eyes.
Wade's brother Chris decides to come to the Hamptons too, to make sure Wade goes through with the proposal. Because he is wearing his work scrubs and a roommate's fraternity sweatshirt, Virgil thinks Chris is a real doctor (shocker!) and a member of the same fraternity Virgil pledged in college. In potentially the most ludicrous contrivance in a film full of many, Chris also becomes a potential suitor for Gloria who decides she wants to be 100% sure she is gay before coming out to her father.
You may be able to detect from my tone that I think this is not a well-written movie. However, I did enjoy chunks of it and laughed out loud more than a few times. The actors are largely the reason for that. The ensemble is uniformly excellent, and brief cameos by Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll as Virgil's parents are icing on the cake. The cast's chemistry is so charming that it helps sell a lot of unoriginal ideas, such as Wade hallucinating after drinking a tea Daphne spiked with psychedelic mushrooms. As predictable as that bit is, Robinson pushes Wade's freakout to gloriously overblown proportions. In fact, many of the funniest bits seem like they might have been impromptu riffs by Robinson, suggesting the film might have been even more improved by a freewheeling Apatow-style approach.
The AVC-encoded 2.35:1 picture looks as good as you would expect a new movie to look, if a little bland. There's good color reproduction and deep, rich blacks. However, it seems vaguely grainy throughout. It doesn't seem to be digital artifacts, so maybe it was an odd film stock choice by the cinematographer or something.
Like the video, the audio is solid, if unremarkable. There is an English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track and a Spanish 5.1 Dolby track. The sound is almost entirely in the front speakers with only a few music cues and the faintest of sound effects showing up in the other speakers. There are also English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
First up is a cast and crew commentary featuring director Tina Gordon Chism, producer Stephanie Allain, and all of the featured cast minus S. Epatha Merkerson, who was out of town. By the very nature of jamming a bunch of actors into a room, it is pretty chatty. The track is definitely targeted more toward people who want to spend more time with these performers than anyone looking for the inside scoop about the production. There are some production anecdotes (for example, Kali Hawk got a concussion at one point, which reportedly made her funnier for the day), but mostly the actors just goof around.
Also, apparently some people do work in doll hospitals as doll doctors. Thanks for clearing that up, commentary track!
Next is a 22-minute HD EPK called Jam With The Fam that is playable altogether or split into 3 themed sections: "Meet the Characters," "Meet the Cast & Crew," and "Beat the Music." Even for a studio-made making-of featurette, this is light on substance. In fact, the "Meet the Characters" section just has the actors essentially recount the plot of the movie you just watched.
There's also an 8-minute HD Gag Reel that has a few laughs in it, but probably would have been just as funny at half the length.
No theatrical trailer, but there are previews for the Tyler Perry play The Haves and the Have Nots, the movies The Big Wedding, Rapture-Palooza, and Tyler Perry's Temptation, plus the cable channel Epix. A code for the Ultraviolet streaming version of the film is also included.
Peeples is a frustrating watch, and not just because it lifts numerous elements from Meet the Parents without improving them. The film also has a great, slightly squandered cast who deserved to be working from a better script. Still, the movie has a lot of winning moments.
I doubt you'll have lingering memories of it, but you won't be too disappointed if you Rent It.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. Check out his band's new Nick Lowe tribute album.