Bishop T.D. Jakes, head of a megachurch in Dallas, has a wife, five kids, 30,000 flock members and a long line of books to his name, among them "Mama Made the Difference: Life Lessons My Mother Taught Me." He wrote the novel "Not Easily Broken" with both eyes on the silver screen. It is a faith-based love story, secondarily about God's role in the care and feeding of an L.A. couple's turbulent marriage.
Primarily the film, directed by actor-friendly Bill Duke, is about the power of good casting. Thanks to Morris Chestnut, whose warm, easy screen presence was an asset way back in "Boyz N the Hood," and to Taraji P. Henson, adoptive mother of the title character in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," this by-the-book scenario ends up being a pretty entertaining read.
Screenwriter Brian Bird refers to "Not Easily Broken" as "sort of a male version of the film 'Waiting to Exhale.' " Our narrator, Dave, marries Clarice when they're young and full of dreams. Dave's plans are dashed in the introductory montage: An onfield college injury derails his future in pro baseball. Years later Dave's a struggling contractor, while real estate agent Clarice rakes in the dough—enough, nearly, to support a heavy mortgage, keep Clarice in Escalade territory or higher and generally maintain the consuming trappings of success.
Several big things and a lot of little things pile up in "Not Easily Broken." These include a near-fatal car accident; Dave's friendship, teetering on the edge of trouble, with his wife's physical therapist (Maeve Quinlan); and the gruesome play-by-play of Dave and Clarice's marriage provided by Clarice's mother (Jenifer Lewis), who moves in after the accident. Jakes and Bird side with the central male characters, all the way. Unfortunately, they turn Clarice and her mother into cardboard shrews.
Remarkably the movie, like the couple at its center, isn't easily broken. By the end I was rooting for Dave to get right with Clarice, even though the physical therapist seemed a lot calmer. It's more a matter of rooting for performers who know how to flesh out two-dimensional characters. Under Duke's direction, which is visually pedestrian but well-attuned to his actors' needs, Chestnut keeps Dave on an effective low simmer, while Henson's higher-key histrionics give way to honest revelations, in the nick of time. Even when the plot heads toward heavy melodrama, Duke keeps it semi-quasi-real. And for comic relief there's Kevin Hart (as one of Dave's pals), scoring laughs simply by pretending to hide the fact that he's constantly on the verge of a crying jag. The film is likable. Its messages, many of them Lord-oriented, are all equally heartfelt.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual references and thematic elements).
Running time: 1:39.
Opening: Jan. 9.
Starring: Morris Chestnut (Dave); Taraji P. Henson (Clarice); Maeve Quinlan (Julie); Kevin Hart (Tree); Wood Harris (Darnell); Jenifer Lewis (Mary).
Directed by: Bill Duke; written by Brian Bird, based on the book by Bishop T.D. Jakes; photographed by Geary McLeod; edited by Josh Rifkin; music by Kurt Farquhar; production designed by Cecil Gentry; produced by Duke, Jakes and Curtis Wallace. A TriStar Pictures release.