Melvin Van Peebles.
The name alone has weight, alludes to a history of struggle and vision, a brilliant career against all kinds of odds. Given this legacy, you might be surprised when you see him, midway through Peeples. Your reactions might be mixed: on one hand, it’s wonderful to see him, to know that someone in a casting office has thought to work with him, maybe even to honor the man who changed US filmmaking forever when he made Story of a Three Day Pass and, of course, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. On the other hand, well, he’s playing the grumpy grandfather in a Tyler Perry production.
Van Peebles’ appearance in the film is mercifully brief. As Grandpa Peeples, he’s married to a woman known as Nana (played by another groundbreaking figure, Diahann Carroll) and lording over a Sag Harbor-based clan of uptight overachievers. These descend from Grandpa’s especially uptight son, Virgil (David Alan Grier), an imposing federal judge, whose resentment of his father is visible in every moment they’re on screen together, and in many when they are not. Grier manages comedic bodily contortions as a means to convey his simultaneous need for dad’s approval and umbrage over that need. Though Grier is good at this, such contorting is hardly a heavy lift, and indeed, according to the film’s premise — all the Peeples share the same debilitating emotional conflict — it provides a model to be imitated by all of his children and Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson), his not-very-recovering addict wife too.
The exception is Wade (Craig Robinson, who is, amid the film’s general clumsiness, refreshingly appealing). He is not a Peeples. Rather, he arrives at the mansion unannounced for a weekend with a ring in his pocket, hoping to propose to his girlfriend Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington). They’re living together back in New York City, where she’s a lawyer for the UN and he’s a children’s party entertainer, introduced as he’s singing a song instructing kids not to “pee” but instead express themselves in words. Grace describes his occupation as therapy, in an effort to dress it up for her parents, but while Daphne, a former disco-sort-of singer, can appreciate the work, Virgil is instantly dismissive.
Wade doesn’t take this so personally as he might, but keeps trying to impress the man who, before Wade’s surprise visit, hadn’t even known he existed. Grace too is struggling with the need to be perfect in her father’s eyes, as are her TV news reporter sister Gloria (Kali Hawk), reluctant to come out about her relationship with her cameraperson Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis), and little brother Simon (Tyler James Williams), who records and rather adores himself singing and dancing in his bedroom and also, as his acting-out tic, steals jewelry, money, and women’s underwear, another of the film’s reductive psychological profiles (read it as you will).
This morass of angsts and deceits is awfully like the one Ben Stiller wades into in Meet the Parents. While it’s not a terrible idea to copy this formula pretty much exactly, to introduce characters of color into a franchise-ready situation, and even to use a few terrific and well-known actors to play those characters, it’s not an idea that encourages originality. You know where you’re headed as soon as Wade gets to Sag Harbor: his charm and honesty will inspire the family’s rehabilitation and reaffirmation. And that’s the primary letdown in Tina Gordon Chism’s film, that it has so little to offer that you haven’t seen before.
And so you know that Wade will be embarrassed by an accidental lack of cash at the market, he’ll be upset by meeting Grace’s former lovers, he’ll be horrified by a series of mistakes he makes in front of Virgil and also be troubled over the family secrets he discovers, efforts by each member to appear as perfect as Virgil demands and also to undermine his authority in covert ways. You know that he’ll be thrilled by Grace’s attempt to smooth over a rift by dressing up in her schoolgirl uniform, supplying a ruler so that he can spank her for being a “bad girl.” You know that when Wade accidentally drinks from Daphne’s thermos — labeled “For Daphne Only” — he’ll have a monumental moment of disclosure.
All this predictability does make Van Peebles’ first scene a bit of a welcome jolt. Before he even opens his mouth, you’re guessing, hoping really, that he’ll change the dynamic. Instead, Grandpa complains that Virgil is not the president, but just a judge, “without the honor, the White House, or the power.” The line is cruel here and so serves its purpose, to show how Virgil came to be so miserable. But it also suggests what Van Peebles represents, the high stakes of his work and his remarkable achievements. It makes Peeples look stunningly unambitious.