Peeples

Yet another one from the Tyler Perry hit factory. “Tyler Perry Presents Peeples” is the latest screen comedy he’s presenting/producing, this time starring Craig Robinson, who’s best known for his TV work on “The Office.”

This is the low-key Robinson’s first chance to be a leading man and his biggest film role since “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010).

His bumbling, usually subtle approach might seem an unnatural fit for a Perry production, but it’s one of the key ingredients that make this film notable—that and his agile sparring with comic firebrand David Alan Grier.

Robinson plays Wade Walker, a good-natured regular Joe who’s been together with a wonderful, talented woman, Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington, a little lost here), for one blissful year. He’s ready to meet her family, but she’s more than a little hesitant—the “chocolate Kennedys,” as he calls them, are all perfectionists, nothing like Wade’s people. While Wade works hard to make it as a children’s music therapist, his unlicensed status isn’t likely to impress any of the overachieving Peeples.

Wade shows up uninvited for a family weekend in Sag Harbor—a weekend celebrating, of all things, the local Moby Dick Day—and his relationship with Grace is tested in every way thinkable.

The basic joke at work is that the Peeples aren’t really that black, they’re closer to white—and Wade represents the unwanted “real black” element. This is accentuated in an uncomfortable later scene where Wade’s accused of stealing earrings from Grace’s mother (S. Epatha Merkerson).

On his surprise arrival, Wade’s miffed to learn that Grace never actually told her family about him—the first of a flurry of surprises to hit him in Sag Harbor. The Peeples turn out to be a highly dysfunctional bunch behind the curtain, everyone deeply invested in keeping secrets from everyone else. In short order, Wade knows more about the Peeples than he wants to. In fact, he soon knows way more than they know about themselves: the dad’s a closet nudist, the mother needs to go back to rehab, Grace’s sister (Kali Hawk) is a lesbian who hasn’t come out to the family, and Grace’s brother (Tyler James Williams) has a problem with kleptomania.

Meanwhile, all Wade wants is the right moment to propose to Grace. But he just can’t catch a break—what can go wrong for him keeps doing so.

The biggest thorn in his side is Grace’s overbearing father, Virgil (Grier), a retired federal judge who repeatedly demands that Wade address him only as “Judge Peeples.” It’s “Meet the Parents” (2000) all over again, with Robinson taking Ben Stiller’s spot and Grier taking Robert De Niro’s—except this time, of course, everyone’s black.

In her directorial debut, Tina Gordon Chism doesn’t waste any time getting the familiar gears going. Although her premise has zero originality, she stuffs her screenplay with genuine quirkiness and plenty of black cultural references to make “Peeples” seem original enough in places. Here and there, there’s even the hint of Sturgian social satire at work.

Some highlights: Wade discovers that Mrs. Peeples is the former 1970s disco queen Lady Divine, which leads to him secretly trying on her old headdress—and getting caught red-handed by the judge. There’s also a raucous sweat lodge sequence, in which Wade and Virgil battle it out to see who’s manlier, and a surreal climax at Moby Dick Day: Wade accidentally consumes psychedelic mushrooms and has a violent encounter with Virgil, who’s dressed for the day as none other than Ahab.

While “Peeples” hardly breaks new ground, it’s the funniest thing Hollywood’s come up with this year—much funnier than, say, “Identity Thief.” And the humor is for the most part inoffensive, thank you.

“Peeples” is also a welcome step forward for Robinson, who will likely excel at drama as well as comedy, and a debut of promise for a new woman director, Chism.