Melvin Van Peebles, director and star of the X-rated, revolutionary 1971 black comedy “Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” makes an appearance in a minor role in Tina Gordon Chism’s plucky, entertaining debut, “Peeples.” His presence serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come over the past five decades in terms of racial progress on the screen. Let’s see, there’s the money-making Tyler Perry (also a producer of this film), the Oscar-winning Denzel Washington, the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson, the rarely glimpsed Spike Lee, and. . .
OK, so it’s not very encouraging. On the other hand, though “Peeples” gets off to a hobbling start, wraps up with the usual bromides, and is pretty much anodyne throughout, it’s still a lot funnier than “The Big Wedding.”
(Speaking of “The Big Wedding,” there’s no getting around the resemblance of “Peeples” to another Robert De Niro-starring movie, “Meet the Parents.” But we’ll get to that later.)
In the new movie’s opening scene, Wade (Craig Robinson of “The Office”), shot in close-up, croons out a blues tune with suggestive lyrics. A cut is made and we see that he’s singing to — a library full of children. Then the song turns out to be about how it’s better to communicate with people than pee on them to resolve problems. True, the kids seem to be enjoying it, but you can see why Wade’s girlfriend Grace (Kerry Washington) has reservations about introducing her longstanding, live-in boyfriend to her family. They are a haughty, judgmental bunch whom she describes as the “chocolate Kennedys,” and they’re headed by a fearsome patriarch, Judge Virgil Peeples (David Alan Grier). Snubbed but undaunted, Wade crashes a Peeples family gathering at their palatial Sag Harbor summer home, setting up the expected class confrontations, ironic revelations, punctured hypocrisies, farcical disasters, and inevitable reconciliations.
Yes, it’s all been done before, down to the accidental fire, the misinterpreted, overheard conversation, and the former boyfriend (actually a few — Grace has her share of secrets too), though Robinson’s Wade is a lot less uptight and more good-natured than Ben Stiller’s Greg Focker in “Meet the Parents.” Despite the derivativeness, Chism shows talent and shrewd instincts in the timing and direction of the comedy — she handles the requisite dinner table disaster scene with aplomb.
Plus, the music sure beats “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It also suggests the spectrum of African-American tastes and culture over the years, from Judge Peeples’s emulation of John Coltrane on the saxophone, to the disco queen past of Grace’s mother, Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson), to the wannabe gangsta rap of her kid brother Simon (Tyler James Williams). So, when Van Peebles finally shows up as the family’s arch patriarch, Grandpa Peeples, he might suppose the future of black filmmaking is in good (if not yet great) hands.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.