Domestic comedy “Peeples” may appropriate its entire premise and plot structure from “Meet the Parents,” but its heart is suffused with French cinema. Not the cinema of Godard or Rivette, exactly, but rather that specific strain of heated, horny, hyperactive farce that Gallic auds actually attend. Set amid the bourgeois black upper class rarely glimpsed on film, and driven by the discreet charm of lead Craig Robinson, writer-helmer Tina Gordon Chism’s debut pic deals out generous doses of anarchic hijinks without stressing over the narrative connective tissue in between, and the end product holds together just well enough. Modest B.O. beckons.
Last year, the Paul Rudd comedy “Wanderlust” was released on Blu-ray with an alternate “bizarro” cut that re-created the same rote plot as the theatrical cut, using only deleted scenes and outtakes, and it’s not difficult to imagine “Peeples” following a similar route. Hilarious bits of business and inspired goofery flow freely and effortlessly throughout the film, yet even the most basic narrative devices seem to have been dragged in kicking and screaming. The pic is hardly tautly assembled, but it probably could stand to be even looser, as its primary pleasures all seem to be peeking into the frame from the margins, photobombing the rather blase story lingering in the center.
As for that story, Chism makes little effort to disguise her obvious working model. Wade (Robinson) is a blue-collar children’s entertainer dating the out-of-his-league Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), with plans to pop the question. Before he can do this, however, he decides to first meet her family — described as “the chocolate Kennedys” — at their palatial seaside home.
Wade’s plans go pear-shaped rather quickly. Peeples paterfamilias Virgil (David Alan Grier) is a fusty federal judge with no intentions of making nice with his prospective son-in-law; mom Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) is a recovering alcoholic and former disco diva; brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a nerdy teen who imagines himself an R. Kelly-like lothario; and sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is a TV reporter who has brought along her comely camerawoman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis) for mysterious reasons known only to everyone in the audience.
Unlike “Meet the Parents,” “Peeples” is rather unconcerned with even approximating actual human behavior en route to setting up its setpieces, which often works to its benefit. Many of the film’s best bits arise from scenarios that are unexplained, or introduced so flat-footedly that they might as well be, while the most strenuously orchestrated, long-lead punchlines often dissipate into sad little laughless dribbles. (At the screening attended, one completely throwaway gag involving a dartboard had the audience in stitches, while a go-for-broke drug freakout scene passed by with barely a whimper.)
In his first leading role, Robinson strikes an odd note halfway between Seth Rogen and Rodney Dangerfield, but it’s one that clicks well within the pic, and the role should help the comic deservedly move beyond supporting parts. Grier is perfectly cast as a punctilious patrician, and Melvin Van Peebles, who appears in a late cameo as the eldest of the Peeples clan, is always a welcome sight. Save for the delightfully flighty Merkerson, however, the female contingent of the cast has rather skimpy material on which to chew.
Though “Peeples” boasts the imprimatur of producer Tyler Perry, it bears little resemblance to the multihyphenate’s own authorial projects, and the film’s lack of shoehorned sermonizing or high camp comes as a substantial relief. Tech credits are all perfectly adequate.