Craig Robinson, The Office co-star and Judd Apatow utility player, makes a play for leading man with uneven results in Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, a bland, quickly disposable romantic comedy. Playing opposite Kerry Washington – in a wan, underwritten departure from her wildly popular Scandal persona – Robinson sings, mugs, riffs and vamps his way through a barely warmed-over version of Meet the Parents redux.
Robinson plays Wade Walker, a would-be child therapist who has carved out a living singing inspirational songs to school children. (The movie opens with him belting out a gospel-tinged toilet training ballad called Speak It, Don’t Leak It.) Wade’s girlfriend, Grace Peeples (Washington), is a successful lawyer, and has studiously avoided introducing Wade to her high-achieving family for fear of their disapproval. Wade finally decides to take matters into his own hands, following Grace to a Peeples family weekend at their gorgeous beach house in tony Sag Harbor.
With its fish-out-of-water class conflict and ersatz set-ups (the main event during the weekend is a town reading of Moby Dick), Peeples lurches from one coming-down-main-street comic situation to the next, never giving its terrific cast much to do beyond playing their caricatured parts. David Alan Grier barks and glares on cue as Grace’s overbearing dad, a status-conscious federal judge; S. Epatha Merkerson sips wistfully at her ever-present sports water as his recovering-alcoholic wife, and Kali Hawk and Kimrie Lewis-Davis are suitably attractive as Grace’s sister Gloria and pal Meg who, Grace tells Wade, have been besties since rugby at Smith!
Hint, hint. The living, loving and learning in Peeples has to do with toxic secrets and the healing power of emotional honesty, but the point of the film is strictly genre-related, trotting out broad jokes and risque sight gags that center on an affectionate dog, nudism, sexual role-playing and that climactic Moby Dick event that winds up being quite a trip. (Another hint: Peeples comes courtesy of executive producer Tyler Perry, whose banal, too-obvious production aesthetic is on full display here.)
Robinson maintains his signature openness and warmth throughout Peeples, which marks the directorial debut of Tina Gordon Chism (best known for co-writing the wonderful Drumline as well as ATL). And he’s surrounded by consistently game supporting players, who at one immensely gratifying point include Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll. The schematic script and clunky pacing of Peeples notwithstanding, Chism clearly has a knack for casting and humanistic stories. With luck, her sophomore outing will find her in more assured control of stronger material.