The T.D. Jakes faith-based media empire expands even further into mainstream entertainment with “Not Easily Broken,” a contempo melodrama about a marriage under stress that, religious overtones and sheer artistic skill aside, isn’t too far from some similar-themed films of the ’50s by Douglas Sirk and Richard Quine. Director Bill Duke, with screenwriter Brian Bird adapting Jakes’ novel, oversees a routine and formulaic project that could have reached considerably greater emotional and psychological depths. The Good Word of mouth among members of Jakes’ flock will deliver fine opening weekend numbers for this early January release.
With husband Dave (Morris Chestnut) narrating from the start, pic wastes no time announcing itself as a domestic drama that will be viewed from the male perspective. Not unlike Jakes’ previous film and play, “Woman Thou Art Loosed,” the narrative somewhat celebrates women working outside the home while suggesting that modern marriages may be in trouble because men feel marginalized by the threat of women’s lib — a familiar, if retro, theme among Jakes’ heroes.
A decade since their 1995 marriage, Dave and Clarice (Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) have seen their fortunes flip: An injury has ended his dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player, while her real estate career has taken off. Early scenes establish Dave as a nice, humble guy who’s accepted his lot in life, driving around a beat-up truck for his remodeling business and coaching little league, while Clarice is full of herself as her office’s top salesperson.
Audience sympathies are crudely stacked against Clarice, who loudly and repeatedly complains that Dave is spending too much time coaching “little gangbangers-in-training,” while allowing her annoying mother Mary (Jenifer Lewis) to intrude on their domestic life and echo Clarice’s huffy arguments. Dave is so adept at coaching and giving young boys support that all he lacks is a halo, and Clarice’s inexplicable reluctance to have a baby with a man who’s obviously ideal daddy material borders on the pathological.
Things get worse after a nearly fatal car crash leaves Clarice facing a long period of rehab at home for a broken leg. Julie (Maeve Quinlan), a blonde single mom who’s already traded glances with Dave’s buddy Brock (Eddie Cibrian), turns out to be the physical therapist who earns Clarice’s trust and helps her get back in shape.
“Not Easily Broken” embraces its weepie tendencies in a very ’50s kind of way, but seriously misplays its hand at the critical juncture when Dave would be nursing Clarice back to health. Further tragedy, and Dave’s temptation to strike up an affair with Julie, sends an already flawed third act into the dramaturgical ER. The always bad idea of slotting characters as types for the purpose of driving home messages about how to live one’s life ensures a fairly lifeless melodrama, in which the comic moments provided by spunky comic Kevin Hart, who steals several scenes as one of Dave’s buddies, are like mannah from heaven.
The pigeonholed characters constrict Chestnut and the usually good Henson from portraying fully developed adults; the same dilemma hits most of the supporting cast, including Quinlan and Wood Harris as a troubled ex-ballplayer with worse issues than Dave. The easygoing Cibrian joins Hart in offering welcome distraction, and the ideally cast Albert Hall brings his reliable gravitas to bear as the marrieds’ caring, concerned bishop (effectively playing Jakes himself). Speaking of Jakes, he appears to good effect in a credited cameo — not playing himself — during a mildly amusing restaurant scene.
Tech credits are nothing more than standard-issue.