Ben Stiller was on the rise after breaking mainstream ground in There's Something About Mary. Robert De Niro was at the peak of his shift from Scorsese dramas to screwball comedies. The script was approachable and amicable, but not without its edge. Meet the Parents was prime crowd-pleasing comedy. Since the film's release in 2000, we've seen a number of other attempts at the in-law-centric comedy of errors, ones destined from conception to live in the shadow of Jay Roach's modern classic. The latest is the Tyler Perry production Peeples, a film that borrows more than just the basic "guy meeting his fiancée-to-be's family" formula from the Stiller/De Niro comedy. In fact, upon leaving a screening of the film on Tuesday night, I heard a fellow viewer remark that Peeples was "Meet The Fockers, but with music." Understandable, but not entirely fair.
Peeples sees the likable Wade Walker (Craig Robinson), an aspiring child psychologist who writes and performs songs to teach kids about expressing themselves verbally, struggling to impress his uptight girlfriend Grace's (Kerry Washington) rigid and tyrannical father, Judge Virgil Peeples (David Alan Grier) upon meeting him and the family for the first time during a weekend getaway to their summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Yes, at times, the new movie seems like it cited the script of Parents with a checklist in hand: both films take place in prosperous Long Island, pit a sensitive working class dreamer against the hard-nosed professional patriarch, and involve the gradual surfacing of family secrets. For a while, there, it seems as though the movie is setting up for a rip-off of the too-well-known-to-be-reproduced Meet the Parents. But a few leagues into Wade's increasingly ill-fated vacation with the Peeples clan, the movie actually begins to one-up its predecessor.
With performers like Stiller and, to a greater degree, De Niro, Parents felt comfortable using its supporting cast as set dressing. There wasn't much for anyone else to do in the film: Teri Polo, Stiller's romantic interest, was flat and unsubstantial. Blythe Danner had some words of reason, but hardly anything to contribute to the comedy. Even De Niro's stoner son (Jon Abrahams) didn't have anything in the vein of a story. Stiller didn't meet the parents, much less the family. He met the dad. But here, Peeples is champion. Chism invests a little something in each member of her cinematic family: father Virgil is an overbearing, hypermasculine A-type (an identity that clearly stems from his relationship with his own father, whom we meet briefly). Grace has, as a result of her rearing, and her dad's well-documented favoritism, become a somewhat self-destructive, victory-affixed obsessive-compulsive, opting desperately to hide her imperfections from everyone in her life.
And Grace isn't the only Peeple to get an industrial treatment: her sister is, in the same vein, trying to hide her homosexuality from her abrasive father. Her brother is a kleptomaniac, and a contentious scientific genius with low self-esteem. Her mother is a recovering addict and a former music artist whose career and glory were overshadowed by her husband. The characters in Peeples are given full plates. And as Wade gets to know them through the film, he finds himself connecting with each of their individual stories.
Unfortunately, Peeples throws the lot of this out the window in the third act. In a 90-minute romantic comedy, there's only so much room for a full-fledged supporting cast, at least as far as the film is concerned. Each of these characters' conflicts, all far more engaging than that of Wade and Grace, are discarded when it comes time for the big, sweet ending. Even Grace's proclivity for dishonesty and judgment, not to mention her subtle Elektra Complex, are ignored in the end: the movie doesn't give its superior material a fair chance to shine, opting instead for your typical genre conclusion.
Throughout the movie, the gags are standard and predictable, with the performances of Robinson and Malcolm Barrett (playing Wade's goofy brother Chris) offering a few laughs here and there. The real meat of the movie is its devotion to the characters. Unfortunately, that devotion fades away instantly when the time comes from a sweeping romantic ending and dynamic musical number. But really, in a genre where these are the norm, couldn't we have spent a little more time solving the Peeples' problems?
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.