T.D. Jakes, a well-known African-American preacher, wrote the novel on which this sudsy tale of a marriage on the rocks is based, so you’re hardly surprised by the fact that there’s a strong Christian element to its recipe for what keeps a marriage strong. What is shocking about “Not Easily Broken,” however, is the highly unflattering portrait it paints of black women. The husband here is practically a saint; but his wife is a rather a shrew, not just supported but encouraged in her self-absorption and anger by her bitter, sharp-tongued mother. And what makes the picture even weirder is that the only female who’s entirely likable is the white woman she wrongly believes her husband is having an affair with. This is essentially a soap opera, but one wonders whether African-American women—its target audience—will appreciate what it says about them.
Morris Chestnut stars as Dave Johnson, a guy whose hopes for a pro baseball career were shattered by injury. Now he’s a struggling landscaper whose wife Clarice (Taraji P. Henson) is carrying them financially via her work as a real estate agent. She’s oblivious to his needs, especially paternalistic ones, which he fills through his involvement (or over-involvement, as his wife would see it), along with his comic-relief pals Tree (Kevin Hart) and Brock (Eddie Cibrian), with neighborhood kids in a baseball league. That avocation brings out his fatherly interest in two kids: Deshawn (Nathaniel Carter), whose ex-con father Darnell (Wood Harris) is an old rival of Dave’s who resents his concern for the boy, and Bryson (Cannon Jay), a shy white kid who excels in swimming but proves a klutz on the field. It’s his desire to support Bryson that gets Dave close—entirely platonically, mind you—with his charming single mom, Julie (Maeve Quinlan), who’s also his wife’s physical therapist. It’s that relationship that Clarice’s harridan mother Mary (Jenifer Lewis) and her voluble co-worker Michelle (Niecy Nash) use to stoke her anger against Dave and threaten to break them up.
“Not Easily Broken” is rife with overripe flourishes—not just the domestic shouting matches and catty repartee but car crashes, horrible accidents, hospital death watches and teary funerals, as well as the occasional ponderous pietistic intervention by Jakes surrogate Bishop Wilkes (Albert Hall), who intones bromides that miraculously return troubled parishioners to their senses.
But what sticks out like a sore thumb throughout is the abrasive, obnoxious behavior of pushy Clarice, irritating Michelle and especially brittle, snarky Mary (a reason for her fury is provided late in the picture, but it comes across as a maudlin afterthought). Intended or not, the movie comes across as decidedly misogynistic, even in religious terms, since Wilkes ultimately places the blame for the couple’s problems on Clarice’s failure to give Dave the son he so obviously wants. (Apparently childless marriages and working women are not part of God’s plan.)
But even apart from that, it’s a long, obvious slog into marital melodrama. Under Bill Duke’s lax direction, the somnolent Chestnut keeps his dignity pretty much intact, but Henson’s overwrought turn undermines one’s affection for her performance in “Benjamin Button,” and Lewis so successfully accesses the mother-in-law from hell that you want her ejected from the house. Everyone else is undistinguished, though it must be said that young Jay is utterly unconvincing as an up-and-coming Spitz or Phelps. From the technical side the picture’s no great shakes either, looking wan in Geary McLeod’s workmanlike cinematography.
“Not Easily Broken” may be well-intentioned, but as a movie it’s not easily tolerated.