Comedy provides sitcom-style laughs

Sitcom-style laughs served with side of compassion

photos by Nicole Rivell / Associated Press i
Craig Robinson (center) stars as Wade Walker in “Peeples” with Kerry Washington, who plays his girlfriend Grace Peeples, and David Alan Grier, her father. The plot is familiar, but the film has real warmth.

Photo by Nicole Rivelli

photos by Nicole Rivell / Associated Press i Craig Robinson (center) stars as Wade Walker in “Peeples” with Kerry Washington, who plays his girlfriend Grace Peeples, and David Alan Grier, her father. The plot is familiar, but the film has real warmth.

Indomitable mom S. Epatha Merkerson comforts wannnabe-rapper son Tyler James Williams in “Peeples.”

Photo by Nicole Rivelli

Indomitable mom S. Epatha Merkerson comforts wannnabe-rapper son Tyler James Williams in “Peeples.”

“Peeples” is straight-up sitcom, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

A rare starring vehicle for supporting comic actor Craig Robinson, the movie is a sort of black-cast reworking of “Meet the Parents,” but with a modest budget and a less aggressive tone. Judging from the uproarious audience response at the preview screening I attended, the movie should be a substantial hit for Lionsgate and for 34th Street Films, a production arm of Tyler Perry Studios.

A burly Everyman with an intentionally low-wattage delivery, Robinson is cast as Wade Walker, an inspirational if struggling children’s entertainer whose latest composition, intended to discourage kids from wetting their pants, features the chorus: “Speak it, don’t leak it.”

Sitcom viewers (i.e., everybody in the world with access to a TV) won’t be surprised to learn that Wade’s unlikely girlfriend, Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), is an overachieving beauty. When Wade describes Grace as a United Nations lawyer, the gap between his pursuits and her success is revealed to be so enormous that we wonder if he’s joking.

Left to sulk in Manhattan by Grace, who doesn’t seem to want her boyfriend to meet her folks, Wade decides to crash a Peeples reunion at the family’s lavish vacation home at Sag Harbor in the Hamptons. He’s made to feel welcome by Grace’s mother (S. Epatha Merkerson, the movie’s most winning performer), a former 1970s dance diva known as Lady Divine. He’s less warmly embraced by Grace’s pompous father, Judge Peeples (David Alan Grier). Also appearing briefly but to good effect are Diahann Carroll and Melvin Van Peebles as Grace’s grandparents.

True to a comic tradition that may be as old as storytelling itself, the unsnooty and relatively embarrassing Wade proves to be both a disruptive and liberating influence on the uptight, privileged Peeples (who are so wealthy and influential Wade calls them “the chocolate Kennedys”). True, he burns down a sweat lodge and stumbles into a nudist meeting, but he also encourages the family to abandon its “secrets and lies” (if we may be allowed to make a Mike Leigh reference in a Craig Robinson film).

“Peeples” — the title was “We the Peeples” until recently — was written and directed by Tina Gordon Chism, the scripter of “ATL” and “Drumline,” here making her directing debut. Chism’s visuals are no more than functional, but her movie is notable for its warmth and compassion. Grace has a lesbian sister (Kali Hawk) and a rapper-wannabe little brother (Tyler James Williams), but their character types, for the most part, aren’t exploited for cheap laughs. Even Sag Harbor’s celebration of “Moby Dick Day” isn’t used primarily as an excuse for penis jokes. This demonstrates a level of restraint that seems beyond the reach of most modern (or should I say male?) filmmakers.

Posters and other promotional materials for the film read “Tyler Perry Presents Peeples,” but the on-screen title is simply “Peeples.” Perry apparently was more a supporter than a creator here, lending the clout of his bankroll and his name to the project. The key producers were Paul Hall and especially Stephanie Allain. Hall is a veteran member of Perry’s team, while Allain is a specialist in helping new directors. Allain was instrumental in enabling Memphis’ Craig Brewer to direct his breakout film, “Hustle & Flow,” and its followup, “Black Snake Moan.”

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