Among his other achievements, Tyler Perry can be credited for helping create room at the multiplex for Christian-themed, African-American-targeted melodramas. Just as Judd Apatow has made the R-rated comedy fashionable (and profitable) again, Perry has reminded distributors that there's a market for tame, moderately enjoyable message films.
Not Easily Broken is the latest movie to benefit from Perry's track record. Granted, its director, Bill Duke (also a recognizable actor), has been at this since before anyone knew who Perry was -- but I doubt Not Easily Broken would be opening on 800 screens if it weren't for the success of tonally similar films like Meet the Browns and The Family That Preys. The chief difference between Duke and Perry seems to be that while Perry's films idolize women and make most of the men out to be villains, Not Easily Broken looks at the current state of black American malehood and gently urges men to be better.
The title comes from a minister's assertion, in the wedding scene that opens the film, that while a regular marriage can be disrupted by worldly influences, a marriage that includes God as a third partner (not like THAT, you sickos) can withstand almost anything. That's eventually the main point of the movie, too, though it's supplemented by other good points that are less religious in nature.
The newlyweds are Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice (Taraji P. Henson), a happy Los Angeles couple with big hopes for the future. Dave was a baseball player before an injury sidelined him; now he's a contractor with a small building and remodeling company. Clarice, a real estate agent, has become the primary breadwinner, consistently topping the sales charts in her company. It's a good thing, too, because she's kind of materialistic and focused on looking successful.
Dave coaches a Little League team with his buddies, comic-relief motormouth Tree (Kevin Hart) and token white guy Brock (Eddie Cibrian), and there runs afoul of Darnell (Wood Harris), the father of one of the players. Dave and Darnell grew up together but went down separate paths when Darnell sold crack and went to jail and Dave got a baseball scholarship and went to college. Now Darnell is bitter at the world and insistent on pitying himself as a victim rather than taking responsibility for his actions.
The screenplay, by Brian Bird (TV's Touched by an Angel) and based on Texas pastor T.D. Jakes' novel, is all over the place with its plotting. Clarice is injured and requires physical therapy, provided by a single mom named Julie (Maeve Quinlan), whom Brock wants to date; meanwhile, Clarice's overbearing mother (Jenifer Lewis) moves in to assist her daughter and to harass her son-in-law; then there is some suspected infidelity that will make you roll your eyes; then there's some cheap melodrama in the form of a minor character's death, followed by a funeral held at a church that the family in question most certainly did NOT attend, probably because the producers had already secured one church set for the wedding scene and didn't want to rent another.
The stops, starts, lurches, and tangents caused me to do quite a bit of watch-checking, especially in the final half-hour; the problem with a movie whose plot meanders is that there's no way of telling when it's building to a conclusion and when it's just spinning its wheels. That said, the central concern -- strife in Dave and Clarice's marriage -- is well-played by Chestnut and Henson, and Lewis plays the nagging mother-in-law convincingly and with minimal stereotyping. (The same cannot be said of some of the one-scene characters, like the cartoonishly snooty waiter who holds out Dave's declined credit card as if it were a dirty diaper.)
In the end, what the film offers are a few chuckles, maybe a couple of insightful moments, and general good vibes. The religious themes won't convert anyone not already onboard with the Lord (though perhaps it's nice to have a reminder now and then); it's the film's earnest delivery and good intentions that give it whatever value it has.