If you asked me to sum up Craig Robinson’s onscreen presence in a word, the one I’d choose is “likable.” Even when he’s playing a jerk or a heavy — like the bouncer in “Knocked Up” or baseball star Reg Mackworthy on “Eastbound & Down” — his inherent sweetness shines through. Nobody else could say the line “I would tear that ass up,” and make it sound like a kind, sensitive compliment. That’s Robinson’s gift. Try as he might to be a jerk, he’ll always be nice. He’s the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry.
It’s precisely that quality that ‘Peeples’ tries to play off of by casting him as Wade, a typically amiable Robinson character whose relationship with Grace (Kerry Washington) hits a snag when she refuses to introduce him to her family, out of fear of her stern father Virgil (David Alan Grier). But c’mon; he’s Craig Robinson. How could anyone not like him?
And therein lies the humor in ‘Peeples,’ a big broad domestic comedy that, as you may have already gathered, thoroughly and shamelessly recycles the premise and even some of the gags from the Ben Stiller – Robert De Niro hit ‘Meet the Parents,’ another film about a disapproving upper-crust father meting out a slow and agonizing series of impossible tests for a schlubby potential son-in-law who is as well-intentioned as he is accident prone. I’ve seen actual remakes that were less faithful to their source material than ‘Peeples’ is to ‘Meet the Parents.’ They could have called this movie ‘Meet the Parents’ and released it as a remake, and no one would have batted an eye.
So the material is beyond stale, but it’s made significantly fresher by Robinson, Washington, Grier, and the rest of a truly impressive and very enthusiastic cast. The result is sort of like spoiled milk that’s been turned into halfway decent cheese; not the best you’ve ever sampled, but not horrible either. I’m not sure Robinson and company do enough to justify going out of your way to see the movie, but if you catch it, they’ll keep you reasonably entertained.
Robinson, of course, is the movie’s warm center and its comic rock — and he develops some effectively amusing friction with Grier, who gives poor Wade so many dirty looks in this movie his face is probably still sore. This sort of leading man role in this sort of mainstream comedy can sometimes flatten out an interesting comedian’s quirks, but writer/director Tina Gordon Chism finds spaces to let Robinson’s talents shine through, as in one very silly dream sequence where he channels his inner disco queen. Also bringing their A-games to B-material (or worse) are S. Epatha Merkerson, charming and very funny as Grace’s recovering alcoholic mother, Malcolm Barrett, hilarious as Wade’s goofy brother Chris, and Tyler James Williams (best known as the lead on “Everybody Hates Chris”), who nails his scenes as Grace’s kleptomaniac younger brother Simon. Chism handles her large cast well, and finds time to spotlight all their skills — and even brings in Melvin Van Peebles and Diahann Carroll for a satisfying one-scene cameo as the Peeples clan’s grandmother and grandfather.
At times, the ‘Peeples’ cliches are so brazen they’re almost shocking; does every guy in movies who pretends to be a doctor to impress skeptical parents also have to be afraid of blood? And those ‘Meet the Parents’ connections are insanely extensive (both movies even feature scenes where the hapless protagonists accidentally set beloved buildings on fire). But the performers are so good that you wind up kind of liking the movie in spite of itself. I guess you could call that The Craig Robinson Effect.‘Peeples’ opens in theaters on May 10.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’