Ben Stiller was on the rise after breaking mainstream ground in There's Something About Mary. Robert De Niro was at the peak of his shift from Scorsese dramas to screwball comedies. The script was approachable and amicable, but not without its edge. Meet the Parents was prime crowd-pleasing comedy. Since the film's release in 2000, we've seen a number of other attempts at the in-law-centric comedy of errors, ones destined from conception to live in the shadow of Jay Roach's modern classic. The latest is the Tyler Perry production Peeples, a film that borrows more than just the basic ''guy meeting his fiancée-to-be's family'' formula from the Stiller/De Niro comedy. In fact, upon leaving a screening of the film on Tuesday night, I heard a fellow viewer remark that Peeples was ''Meet The Fockers, but with music.'' Understandable, but not entirely fair.
Peeples sees the likable Wade Walker (Craig Robinson), an aspiring child psychologist who writes and performs songs to teach kids about expressing themselves verbally, struggling to impress his uptight girlfriend Grace's (Kerry Washington) rigid and tyrannical father, Judge Virgil Peeples (David Alan Grier) upon meeting him and the family for the first time during a weekend getaway to their summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Yes, at times, the new movie seems like it cited the script of Parents with a checklist in hand: both films take place in prosperous Long Island, pit a sensitive working class dreamer against the hard-nosed professional patriarch, and involve the gradual surfacing of family secrets. For a while, there, it seems as though the movie is setting up for a rip-off of the too-well-known-to-be-reproduced Meet the Parents. But a few leagues into Wade's increasingly ill-fated vacation with the Peeples clan, the movie actually begins to one-up its predecessor.
With performers like Stiller and, to a greater degree, De Niro, Parents felt comfortable using its supporting cast as set dressing. There wasn't much for anyone else to do in the film: Teri Polo, Stiller's romantic interest, was flat and unsubstantial. Blythe Danner had some words of reason, but hardly anything to contribute to the comedy. Even De Niro's stoner son (Jon Abrahams) didn't have anything in the vein of a story. Stiller didn't meet the parents, much less the family. He met the dad. But here, Peeples is champion. Chism invests a little something in each member of her cinematic family: father Virgil is an overbearing, hypermasculine A-type (an identity that clearly stems from his relationship with his own father, whom we meet briefly). Gayle has, as a result of her rearing, and her dad's well-documented favoritism, become a somewhat self-destructive, victory-affixed obsessive-compulsive, opting desperately to hide her imperfections from everyone in her life.
And Gayle isn't the only Peeple to get an industrial treatment: her sister is, in the same vein, trying to hide her homosexuality from her abrasive father. Her brother is a kleptomaniac, and a contentious scientific genius with low self-esteem. Her mother is a recovering addict and a former music artist whose career and glory were overshadowed by her husband. The characters in Peeples are given full plates. And as Wade gets to know them through the film, he finds himself connecting with each of their individual stories.
Unfortunately, Peeples throws the lot of this out the window in the third act. In a 90-minute romantic comedy, there's only so much room for a full-fledged supporting cast, at least as far as the film is concerned. Each of these characters' conflicts, all far more engaging than that of Wade and Gayle, are discarded when it comes time for the big, sweet ending. Even Gayle's proclivity for dishonesty and judgment, not to mention her subtle Elektra Complex, are ignored in the end: the movie doesn't give its superior material a fair chance to shine, opting instead for your typical genre conclusion.
Throughout the movie, the gags are standard and predictable, with the performances of Robinson and Malcolm Barrett (playing Wade's goofy brother Chris) offering a few laughs here and there. The real meat of the movie is its devotion to the characters. Unfortunately, that devotion fades away instantly when the time comes from a sweeping romantic ending and dynamic musical number. But really, in a genre where these are the norm, couldn't we have spent a little more time solving the Peeples' problems?
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