Peeples is an African-American Meet the Parents that slips funnyman Craig Robinson into the Ben Stiller role. Casting the musically minded Robinson in this formula comedy about screwing up your first encounter with your potential in-laws is like replacing Stiller’s Greg Focker with Jack Black.
Yeah, that might work. And here, formulaic or not, it’s funny.
Robinson plays Wade, an entertainer for kids who sings about learning to “use your words” and not mess your pants. How he ended up with stunning United Nations lawyer Grace (Kerry Washington) takes a bit of imagination.
Until you meet her parents. Not that she’s anxious to let Wade meet “the Chocolate Kennedys.” She does her family weekends in Sag Harbor without her live-in lover.
But Wade, egged on by his “doll doctor” brother (Malcolm Barrett, hilarious) decides to follow her to the Hamptons and surprise her and her folks with a proposal.
The moment he meets her father, “The Judge,” he realizes the folly of his plan. Judge Virgil Peeples is played by the criminally underemployed comic David Alan Grier. His patriarch is a prickly martinet who so intimidates his family of overachievers that they all lie to him rather than upset his notion of family.
Daphne, his wife (S. Epatha Merkerson in a rare comic turn), is a retired, vampy soul-singer with substance-abuse issues. Young son Simon (Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris) is a genius and a social misfit who acts out by stealing.
Daughter Gloria (Kali Hawk) is a TV reporter who won’t tell Dad she’s in love with her camerawoman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis). And Dad has his own secrets, which Wade stumbles into as he blunders his way through a domestic situation fraught with peril.
Robinson (The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine) is in his ease, here, surrounded by funny people so that he doesn’t have to carry the movie. But in reacting to every new discovery about the Peeples, and about his girlfriend’s secret past, he’s a stitch.
She’s dated a lot of rich, older men in Sag Harbor. How’d he find out? At the market.
“I met Uncle Ben and Bojangles up in here. Who else did you date? George Washington Carver? W.E.B. DuBois?”
Writer-director Tina Gordon Chism earned her directing debut with pretty good scripts for Drumline and ATL. She packs this one with amusing characters in awkward, if obvious, situations and makes the most of them. Tyler Perry produced Peeples, and he could take notes on how to make a lowdown, broad farce that’s never too low or too broad.
The laughs follow an overly familiar path, but it’s great to see Grier, one of the bright lights of the seminal TV sketch comedy In Living Color, button down this judge and find ways to break formula and make him hilarious.
And if these Peeples don’t make Robinson a comic leading man, they at least predict a comic franchise that Perry can produce without having to don a dress.
Peeples (PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆