Jumping the Broom - the single, solitary "urban movie" of summer, 2011, to use the cloying marketing phrase - doesn't just get to be about a group of people, none of them happening to be white, moving through a story. No, it has to be about The African-American Experience in the 21st Century, covering as much ground as it possibly can, touching on class issues, spirituality, family, sex, tradition, and in spreading itself so wide, the film also spreads itself unendurably thin; the contributions of some game actors are the only thing standing between the film and absolute irrelevance, as it attempts to be all things and in the process manages to be none of them.
The film was designed, at least in part, a pro-Christianity movie (hard to say if this is sincere or a calculated effort to by as much of a low-rent Tyler Perry knockoff as possible without out-and-out thievery), though that element of the plot is fairly muted outside of three or four scenes, the first of which is a brutally familiar meet-cute: Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) wakes up from her latest sexual fling to find that she can't stand being treated like meat by every man in New York City, and makes a deal with God not to have sex again until she's married, and it would be nice to get a sign as to who her soul mate might be. It's the guy she hits with her car in a crosswalk, obviously, a certain Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso), and the two young people fall in love just like that, until the day five months later when Sabrina accepts a job offer in China, and Jason proposes marriage.
For all that the whole idea has whiskers on it, it's well-executed, largely because Patton, one of the most incomprehensibly gorgeous women in movies, turns out to have a certain way with screwball comedy, playing the Katharine Hepburn to God's Cary Grant* with a certain high-speed panicked delivery that's not at all what one would expect from a movie co-financed by a megachurch, and
For at this point, Jumping the Broom becomes yet another sitcom about the crazy hijinks that can happen during a wedding, especially one in which the mother of the groom, the class-resentful postal worker Pam (Loretta Devine), has never met the bride, and in which the bride's parents (Angela Bassett and Brian Stokes Mitchell) are old-money types with a house on Martha's Vineyard about the size of a city block. Lots of other wacky possibilities are set up: Pam's best friend Shonda (Tasha Smith) has to fend off the cougar-chasing attentions of Sabrina's cousin Sebastian (Romeo Miller, looking about 12 and giving the plot even more creepiness than it needs), Jason's uncle (Mike Epps) and best friend (DeRay Davis) are acting generally sleazy, the maid of honor (Meagan Good) and chef (Gary Dourdan) are striking up an affair, Sabrina's aunt Geneva (Valarie Pettiford) is dancing about with a secret, and the white wedding planner (Julie Bowen) seems to just this very minute be learning about African-American wedding traditions. At a certain point, the expected complication looms, everybody ends up hating everybody else for a reel, and then they all make up in time for the vows to occur right on schedule.
In other words: every single wedding movie ever: the only stab at originality the script by Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs makes is to cast the film in explicitly class-warfare tones, and to otherwise pursue every sociological end possible, though all of these themes end up being dropped rather than resolved as the story rushes to its pre-ordained climax. The only other feint towards interest is that, instead of taking the path of farce or of melodrama, Jumping the Broom attempts to do both, though the marriage of the two tones is most uncertain; it's largely a matter of the early, funny scenes being phased out in favor of the darker, more serious scenes later, which ends up doing nobody much good, especially Patton, who is not half as successful with drama as with comedy. Part of the problem may lie not with the writing but with the direction of Salim Akil, a TV veteran who doesn't want you to forget it, and frames everything to look as polished as he can without ever accidentally letting an aesthetic style through (it's a better commercial for Martha's Vineyard than it is a narrative). Akil seems content enough to manage to keep the plot moving along that he allows the matter of tonal registers - where along the tragicomedy line the film is meant to land - to attend to itself, and the result feels less like a daring clash of moods than a messy collapse of wimpy comedy into wimpier drama.
It would all be disposable, but for one thing: the cast. The other problem with our delightfully racist culture is that there are a shitload of talented black actors who never get to do anything interesting. Bassett in particular has been much-missed from major mainstream cinema for over a decade now, and her prickly, Ice Queen rich bitch is the clear highlight of Jumping the Broom. But it's a proper showcase for middle-aged African-American women: Pettiford (in the "serious character" division), Smith (in the "comic character" division) and Devine (in the "script drops the ball on her character something terrible" division) are all in their own way standouts just as much as Bassett. The younger women aren't quite as memorable, and the men leave no impression at all (other than Brian Stokes Mitchell, a great Broadway singer who sometimes dabbles in cinema), but generally the largest roles are played by the best actors, and so even when Jumping the Broom has no idea of what it's trying to say or what it thinks about its characters, the performances at least give the illusion that the movie has depth. It's not much, but at least it gives the film enough texture to avoid being just another damn wedding picture with no purpose other than counter-programming.