Much as I’d like to keep this apolitical and just talk about the movie, the way it deserves, I don’t think I can resist it this time. Here is a statement I’m going to underline: I paid to see PEEPLES opening weekend. I am lucky to have a lot of chances to see movies for free, and quite frankly I need to take those chances whenever I can, because I don’t get paid much from writing yet, and my time-consuming day job pays me a barely-survivable wage. To say I don’t have a lot of money (or time) right now is an understatement. But I paid to see PEEPLES.
The main reason I did that is because I really love the main trio of lead actors, Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, and David Alan Grier. They are actors who constantly make every scene they’re in a scene worth watching. In my opinion, Kerry Washington is an uncommonly passionate screen actor, with an unfakeable decency, whereas Robinson and Grier are two of the most consistent scene-dominators in all of comedy. These are guys who have shared screens with some of the most famous comedians in modern history and have stood out against them every single time. I would watch almost anything any of these three were in, and the three of them together is an irresistible prospect to me personally. Happily, that instinct paid off for me, and their movie brightened up a gloomy, drizzly Saturday morning.
Craig Robinson, who you probably know from NBC’s The Office or PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, plays Wade Walker, a musician who plays very Craig-Robinson-style songs to school-children as a way to give them life advice. He doesn’t make a lot of money but for the past year he has been dating a woman who does, glamorous lawyer Grace Peeples — Kerry Washington, most recently from ABC’s Scandal and DJANGO UNCHAINED. Maybe you’re the type who’d look at the two of them and see a mismatch, but they have a sweet, eminently believable relationship in the opening scenes. I’m not a romantic comedy kind of guy, but that’s not really because of my love of Clint Eastwood Westerns, monster movies, and ninja flicks. It’s because most modern romantic comedies feature lead actors who go with their worst instincts and writers who can’t write relatable dialogue or scenarios. I find either one, or both, of the romantic leads in most of these movies to be people in whose company I don’t want to spend an entire movie.
PEEPLES eradicates that reservation quite simply, with the power of good casting. Every single actor in PEEPLES comes off well, even when they’re disagreeing with each other within the story.
Grace comes from a high-achieving family. Her father Virgil (David Alan Grier) is a prominent judge. Her mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) released a successful R&B album in the 1970s. Her sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is an on-camera newswoman. Her little brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a brilliant inventor and an aspiring musician himself. Her grandmother is Diahann Carroll and her grandfather is Melvin Van Peebles!
Wade has heard a whole lot about “The Chocolate Kennedys”, as he calls them, but he hasn’t met them yet, in a whole year of dating Grace. This is weighing on his mind because he wants to marry Grace. (Who wouldn’t?) He has a romantic weekend planned, where he hopes to give her his grandmother’s ring, but she tells him she has to head home to Sag Harbor to celebrate her father’s beloved Moby Dick weekend. (Yes, David Alan Grier dresses up like Ahab and reads from Moby Dick, yet another reason for me to feel warmly about this movie.) When Grace heads off without him, Wade decides to crash the celebration and shows up uninvited, which immediately earns him Virgil’s disapproval, especially since Grace has never once mentioned Wade to them!
The rest of the film is a series of comic shenanigans and hijinks, as Wade struggles to endear himself to Virgil and continues to make things worse. All of the main characters have secrets: Wade is hiding his intentions, Grace is hiding her relationship and most of her history, Gloria is hiding the fact that she’s in a committed relationship with a woman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis), Simon is hiding his kleptomania, Daphne is hiding some recreational habits, and even Virgil is hiding… well, you’ll have to see.
This is Tina Gordon Chism’s first movie as both writer and director. (She previously wrote the screenplays to ATL and DRUMLINE.) If I had to be critical, I’d say her facility for staging scenes of farce is promising but not fully formed — some of the gags are hilarious, others could be more sharply carried off. And to be honest, this is more of a showcase for Craig Robinson than for Kerry Washington, who gets less screentime and slightly less comprehensible motives. But what quibbles I could come up with are overshadowed by my appreciation of this movie’s warmth and affable watchability. That comes from a script which treats every character as a full human being, and direction that encourages every last actor to shine. There are no villains here. Every character is his or her only real enemy, but all of them have the ability to improve, and we get to see most of them do so before the movie’s done. It doesn’t feel forced or unearned. That’s an increasingly rare experience at the movies. I laughed out loud several times throughout the running time, uncommon for me, and that happened because I enjoyed the characters and the performances.
Right this moment, PEEPLES is flopping at the box office. That’s why I need to write this piece. It’s not a perfect movie, but it does not deserve to flop. It’s a generous movie about likable characters any audience would be happy to know. For PEEPLES to flop, that means two things are happening: People who like Tyler Perry are avoiding it, and people who don’t like Tyler Perry are avoiding it. If you don’t like Tyler Perry, you are seeing his name on the poster and staying away. Guess what? I don’t much like Tyler Perry. I’m the guy who wrote this, after all.
But Tyler Perry didn’t write or direct PEEPLES – Tina Gordon Chism did – and he sure doesn’t appear during it — an amazingly talented ensemble cast does — and very genuinely, I give Tyler Perry a ton of credit for trying to get this movie out in front of people. To Tyler Perry’s diehard audience, I give no credit at all, since they have demonstrated with their dollar that they prefer exaggerated caricatures over believable characters and judgmental homilies over the loving themes of acceptance and honesty that PEEPLES encourages.
To me, those are themes worth supporting with my hard-won cash. To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a film that gives Craig Robinson a long-deserved leading role. (Judd Apatow didn’t give me that!) To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a movie that maybe doesn’t represent my face specifically, but does represent faces resembling people in my life, dear friends of mine: teenage characters that aren’t sex-crazed morons, gay characters who aren’t mincing stereotypes, black characters who act like witty, successful, loving human beings rather than total fools. To me, it is worth supporting with my cash the very rare case of a woman, and a black woman no less, writing and directing a feature comedy, especially a comedy that promises a career full of more to come, if only she gets another chance.
See, this is where I have to get political. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, in the age where everyone has a blog or writes for one, in an age where we get to see and hear everyone’s opinions twenty-four-hours a freaking day, I’m not seeing a lot of put-up-or-shut-up. In the last day alone, this Jezebel article excoriating misogyny in comedy has been in front of my eyes about a hundred times. I happen to generally agree with what is being said in that article, and in most of the articles like it. I’m not sure all of them apply to me specifically, but that’s not for me to decide. I tend to think that a man who is willing to read an entire article like that in the first place is one who is friendly to the cause and interested in ways he can change if need be. I love movies and I am trying hard to be a good person and I believe sometimes that means putting my money where my mouth is. That last part is an important distinction, I think.
Maybe I’m overstepping a bit by suggesting it, but I’m going to do it anyway: If you are so committed to the principle of furthering women’s roles in comedy, then will you not get out of the house and vote with your own dollar? Will you not go pay for a movie written and directed by a woman? Especially because I, someone who normally loves “guy’s” movies and who normally does not love movies with Tyler Perry’s name on them, is insisting that it’s a movie worth your time? Maybe my opinion doesn’t, won’t, shouldn’t matter. It’s true: I’m a very heterosexual male and my skin is pretty pale. But still, the fact that a woman broke through and managed to get a comedy made and nobody’s going to see it is something that doesn’t feel right to me. I want to do what I can about it. Here’s one indisputable truth, feminists and fellow feminism-friendly men: It’s not your blogs or your re-Tweets that are going to encourage studios to make this kind of movie. It’s your hard-earned dollars.