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Dustin's Review

Not Easily Broken  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Bill Duke.
Cast: Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Jenifer Lewis, Kevin Hart, Eddie Cibrian, Maeve Quinlan, Wood Harris, Niecy Nash, Cannon Jay, Albert Hall.
2009 – 98 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual references and thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 9, 2009.
Sitting through the theatrical trailer of "Not Easily Broken" a few times in recent weeks did not exactly instill much hope that a worthwhile movie was going to come from it. Seemingly struggling to find enough notable moments to include in a two-minute preview, the film looked about as dull as the summer day is long. Every once in a while, though, comes a surprise, proving that one cannot always judge upon face value. Gently directed by Bill Duke and based on the novel by T.D. Jakes, "Not Easily Broken" is far more astute about the complexities of relationships, romantic and otherwise, than its cheesy promotional campaign suggests. That is not to say that this is a great film—it's a bit too bland, familiar and safe to reach that lofty height—but strong performances and a mature, heartfelt tone help to make it a pretty good one.

Dave Johnson (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice Clark (Taraji P. Henson) were married in 1995, just out of college and with a world of dreams ahead of them. Alas, things don't always turn out as one expects, and thirteen years later Dave has long since given up his dream of playing Major League baseball—a knee injury sidelined him—and turned to opening a building and remodeling business. With himself coaching Little League on the side with best buddies Brock (Eddie Cibrian) and Tree (Kevin Hart), and Clarice, a fierce real estate agent, always on the go, the passion in their marriage has begun to wither. When a car accident severely breaks Clarice's leg and she is bound to a wheelchair during recovery, her set-in-her-ways mother Mary (Jenifer Lewis) invites herself to move in with them. Both of these events are catalysts for Dave and Clarice to finally face up to the problems they have as a couple. Knowing that issues exist may be the first step to working them out, but it may be too late to fix things; as much as they love each other, they no longer appear capable of seeing eye-to-eye.

"Not Easily Broken" is light on plot—some could say too light—but director Bill Duke and screenwriter Brian Bird do a nice job of observing characters without passing judgment on them. Religion and faith play a part in the proceedings—this is where the term "inspirational drama" comes in—but the film, for the most part, avoids preachiness and simply shows how some people grasp onto these things for comfort and guidance. The portrayal of church pastor and counselor Bishop Wilkes (Albert Hall) as a fair man with a warm heart and useful advice to give is a welcome change of pace.

The marriage between Dave and Clarice is imperfect and potentially in jeopardy, and for a time it comes off that Clarice is shrewish—she nags him about coaching Little League and snaps at him over the smallest things—and Dave is inflexible—he blames Clarice for their high expenditures and mortgage, and won't accept that she is not ready to have children. With Clarice's mother always butting in the middle, the viewer rallies for Clarice to finally stand up to her, and wonders why she doesn't. This, like the picture's other many elements, aren't so easily treated in shades of black and white, and the discoveries she makes in the third act—about her mother, about herself, and about how she has been treating the one man she has always been able to count on—effectively inform and explain what has gone before it. Suddenly, Clarice's earlier actions make sense, and her marriage crystallizes as one worth saving. The last scene between Clarice and her mother is wonderfully written and touching, helping to humanize a matriarch who hasn't been easy to warm to, while an unexpected tragedy at the end of the second act somehow escapes maudlin emotions and captures several tough and truthful notes in regards to losing a person before their time.

Morris Chestnut (2007's "The Perfect Holiday") and Taraji P. Henson (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") are captivating actors who sell their roles of Dave and Clarice. Not buying into their relationship—both the good and the bad—would have spelled doom for the film, but there is consistently the sense that these two people are meant for each other, and have somehow gotten lost along the way. That the characters are flawed people allows them to be more sympathetic when they realize the error of their ways. Capable of going down the wrong road—Dave's flirtation with physical therapist Julie (Maeve Quinlan), which may be turning into more, is perhaps not the best decision—but also able to comprehend the choices they are making, Dave and Clarice are multidimensional protagonists. Other performances are memorable, like Kevin Hart's (2008's "Meet Dave") overly emotional Tree; Maeve Quinlan's up-front, non-stereotypical single mother Julie, the possible "other woman;" and Jenifer Lewis' (2004's "The Cookout") stubborn, underlyingly sad Mary, Clarice's mother.

"Not Easily Broken" is unassuming and doesn't try too hard, and that is its charm. Not all the subplots work—one involving a rival (Wood Harris) from Dave's past who is now the short-tempered father of one of his Little League players is extraneous and pat, while a bit in which the nickel-bouncing, firm-abbed Dave is accused of growing love handles is ridiculous—but they cause little harm to the overall piece. "Not Easily Broken" certainly won't be accused of reinventing the wheel, but there is an intelligence and sincerity in its treatment of old-hat subject matter that cannot be faked. For once, the following can be declared: the film is better than its trailer.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman