||“Meet the Peeples” could have been the working title of Tina Gordon Chism’s comedy, which uses the same flimsy sitcom premise of “Meet the Parents” as the excuse for a series of sketches that sacrifice any sort of narrative consistency for lazy laughs. Though a talented ensemble gives their all trying to breathe life into the illogicalities of Chism’s episodic script, in the end the movie amounts to far less than the sum of its parts—or “Parents,” for that matter.
Ingratiating Craig Robinson stars as Wade Walker, a performer at children’s parties who’s living with wealthy, beautiful Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington). He plans to propose to her, but before he can get around to it, Grace goes off to visit her parents, whom he’s never met. Urged on by his loquacious brother Chris (Malcolm Barrett), Wade decides to show up unexpectedly at the Peeple estate, introduce himself to her family and pop the question.
But, of course, Wade’s unexpected arrival is a prelude to disaster. The main obstacle to his plan turns out to be Grace’s father Virgil (David Alan Grier), a pompous, domineering (and possessive) judge whom Grace has told nothing of her boyfriend and who takes an instant dislike to him. But the entire family poses difficulties. Mom Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) is far more inviting to Wade than her husband, but she’s a onetime soul singer with a hankering for booze and drugs she finds hard to control. Sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is a TV newswoman who’s brought along a friend—camerawoman Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis), to whom she’s obviously closer than any of her relatives recognize. And brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a natural-born geek who wants to be both a rapper and a stud, and has sticky fingers to boot. Before the week is out, Chris shows up too, and Virgil’s parents (Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll) make an appearance as well.
It will certainly come as no surprise that things eventually work out for Wade and Grace—and he manages to bring out the best in the other characters, too—but there are plenty of speed bumps along the way. A few of them are pretty funny, but for the most part they’re at best mildly amusing—and worse, they don’t connect logically to one another. Virgil provides the most obvious example. He’s supposedly a stern, unyielding guy, but it’s revealed that he has a midnight secret (not the affair that Wade suspects, but something equally uncharacteristic) and when confronted by a sweater bearing his old fraternity letters, goes immediately off into a strange dance that makes him look like the fourth stooge. Gloria’s sexual preference will be obvious to any viewer from the first moment she appears onscreen, but all her relatives (save one) seem oblivious to it, and late in the picture she even “tests” herself with Chris, in one of the script’s most peculiar (and borderline offensive) scenes. And throughout hints are dropped about Grace’s checkered past with a whole host of guys—revelations that distress Wade briefly but are totally out of sync with what we see of her and then are summarily dismissed as inconsequential when the story no longer needs them to extract laughs.
Meanwhile bits of business are simply tossed into the mix like cadenzas. So Robinson does an impromptu dance when he puts on an elaborate headdress that Daphne once used in her stage act. Why? Because the dress-up might strike us as funny. But when things come to a head at the close, in a scene involving accidental drug use that causes a big public blow-up between Wade and Virgil, the writing and execution are so tonally off that the sequence generates audience discomfort rather than the belly-laughs it’s aiming for.
With an ensemble like this, of course, there can’t help but be good moments, even if they’re mostly throwaways. Robinson makes Wade an ingratiating nice guy, and Grier plays officious without becoming totally detestable in the process—a considerable feat. Williams, Barrett and Van Peebles savor their modest opportunities, and though the women are generally less happily employed (with Carroll shamelessly wasted), Merkerson has a few chances to shine. On the technical side the picture is fine, with a handsome production design from Rick Butler and slick cinematography from Alexander Gruiszynski.
But that’s not enough. “Peeples” deserves credit for avoiding, for the most part, gross-out humor (though one could have done without the song Wade has composed to perform for his kiddie audience, which though meant to be funny just comes across as coarse). Given the quality of the cast, though, this highly uneven, ill-constructed comedy is a disappointment.