'Not Easily' sympathetic to married couple's plight

One-sided story paints husband as injured party, wife as source of all blame in a film meant to focus on God's role in relationship ** ( 2 STARS)

January 09, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Not Easily Broken, adapted from T.D. Jakes' novel of the same name, dramatizes the need to let God into marriage with a preachy style that operates like call-and-response. It's energizing to hear an audience screech at an adulterous kiss the way horror fans do when a stalker pops up with a knife. The director, Bill Duke, and the screenwriter, Brian Bird, know how to hit fans of Christian fiction where they live. Too bad the moviemakers never take their viewers beyond the banality of reassuring family values. Despite several different types of generic humor - locker-room, bar-room and dysfunctional-family sitcom - the movie wilts under its own reverential glow.

The film's resident minister, Bishop Wilkes (the elegant Albert Hall), proclaims its dominant theme when he joins Dave Johnson (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice Clark (Taraji P. Henson) in marriage with a three-stranded cord that he drapes around their shoulders. Two strands represent the couple, and one stands for their Lord. A cord with three strands is "not easily broken." But 10 years later, it is dangerously frayed. Dave lost his potential baseball stardom to a leg injury and now runs his own small contracting business. He gets his biggest pleasure from coaching the neighborhood kids' baseball team. Clarice has become a self-centered, materialistic harpy as she races toward her goal of becoming an upscale Realtor.

We're meant to see Dave as the salt of the earth and Clarice as a pepper pot - feisty and adorable. But, especially at the beginning, Dave's voiceover says one thing and the images say something else. Clarice is so demanding and oblivious, she loses any right to our sympathy from the outset. After a car accident puts her into a wheelchair, and brings her man-hating mother (Jenifer Lewis) into the house with them, she grows increasingly whiny, even after her attractive therapist, Julie Sawyer (Maeve Quinlan), gets her walking on her own again.

The whole thrust of the movie is to warn black women against emasculating their men. Julie, who is white, appreciates Dave for the great guy that he is. She also has a son who brings out Dave's paternal instincts - which he's had a chance to express only with the little leaguers, while Clarice climbed to the top of her real estate world.

Clarice evokes hisses and her mother evokes boos. Yet the movie is designed to reaffirm the couple's marriage, not break it up. Clarice says she must learn to be a better partner. What about Dave? He tries to care for Clarice even after his mother-in-law takes over. Otherwise he plays hoops and coaches baseball and hangs out with his buds (the slick Eddie Cibrian and the frantically funny Kevin Hart). He mends fences with an old high-school baseball friend who went to jail for slinging crack. He never steps out of the truck to do some work.

Still, he's supposed to be the only aggrieved party in this movie, because Clarice has made his mother-in-law the third strand in the marriage. What's worse, the filmmakers use another sympathetic character's grief simply to test his character. Even if you accept that as part of the soap-opera game, this one is too blatantly rigged. In Not Easily Broken, only the husband is a hero-in-the-making. His wife, unfortunately, is nothing but a fall gal. And her mom is one big mother-in-law joke, except she isn't funny.

Not Easily Broken

(Screen Gems) Starring Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Jenifer Lewis, Maeve Quinlan. Directed by Bill Duke. Rated PG-13 for sexual references and thematic elements. Time 100 minutes.

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