Have you ever been to an advanced screening? Do you know what I'm talking about? An advanced screening, or promotional movie screening, is a movie screening frequently sponsored by a radio station, newspaper or other local media outlet designed to create some advance buzz for the film and give some positive PR to the sponsor. They're quite unusual. Usually, they're quite a bit of fun. Typically, a film's promotional screening is aimed squarely at the film's target audience.
For example, a family film will have its screening sponsored by a family friendly media outlet and, of course, families will primarily be invited. A Christian film screening will typically be sponsored by a local Christian media outlet or one of the community's larger Christian organizations. A Black film's screening will usually be sponsored by a local urban radio station or other Black-owned media outlet. These screenings are, if the media outlet has done its job, quite packed...even for what everyone knows is going to be a really crappy film. In addition to these promotional screenings, most of which I am invited to, I attend a fair number of "press only" screenings.
In all honesty, I prefer the promotional screenings because I enjoy seeing a film with its intended audience. On average, I see 300 films a year. By the end of the year, I am admittedly quite jaded. Being surrounded by a film's intended audience can be enlightening in terms of gauging how successfully a film accomplishes its goal. Last night, I attended the promotional screening for "Not Easily Broken," the second film to be produced by preacher/writer T.D. Jakes. While there's no denying Jakes's message is a universal one that transcends racial and cultural boundaries, there's also no denying that Jakes is most popular in the Black community and both his films, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" and now "Not Easily Broken," are squarely aimed at Black Christians in the real world.
If you've never attended a screening with a primarily Black audience, it's an absolute delight. Black audiences interact with films, get into the action and openly express their thoughts and feelings. If you're easily disturbed by talking during a film, it may very well drive you crazy. So, it's not that I was bothered by the fact that talking occurred during "Not Easily Broken"...Not at all. Rather, in this case, the talking during "Not Easily Broken" was non-stop.
Non-stop. It wasn't the entire audience, but a small group of people behind me who talked, quite literally, the entire film.
One other thing you learn quickly if you attend screenings is that there is nearly always security present. This "security" is designed to prevent bootlegging of a film by individuals who may take recording devices into the theatre. So, here I was sitting in a theatre where the security presence was strong and, while no bootlegging was going on, nobody felt compelled to tell these people to "Shut up."
Trust me, I wanted to.
Now then, part of the problem was simple- Despite a strong cast led by Taraji P. Henson (Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Morris Chestnut (This Perfect Holiday), "Not Easily Broken" is a predictable, awkwardly written film in which those sitting behind me could not only predict the coming actions but, in many cases, the actual dialogue.
It would have been funny, had it not been so irritating.
"Not Easily Broken" is essentially a film with the central theme that God must be at the center of any marriage if it is to succeed, a theme not too far removed from that of this summer's "Fireproof." The film centers around David (Chestnut) and Clarice (Henson), a young and beautiful couple who seem destined for a wonderful life when they are married. David is a promising baseball player, while Clarice sees her future in real estate. Clarice's dreams come true as she succeeds wildly, however, David's dreams end abruptly after a torn ACL during his rookie season.
The shattered dreams quickly become a shattered marriage, as David tries to do the best he can with the hand he's been dealt by starting a construction company and coaching a local little league team of young boys his wife and her mother refer to as future gangsters. Clarice, on the other hand, seems to spend beyond her means and idolizes the obviously jaded marital advice of her meddling, angry mother (Jenifer Lewis). When a car accident leaves Clarice seriously injured, the marriage is cracked even further despite the appearance of a physical therapist (Maeve Quinlan) who works miracles.
Can you see where this is going?
The husband and wife grow apart, while David finds in the therapist a sympathetic ear while Clarice clings tighter and tighter to her mother. I've read on the IMDB boards already that "Not Easily Broken" is a film that will appeal to a wide audience, whether faith-based or not.
Hogwash. Admittedly, I am one of the few critics who can also claim to be a minister, as well. Even I found "Not Easily Broken" to be a tad preachy.
Director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) almost seems to be directing from the Tyler Perry school of film-making, a bit surprising given his gift for subtlety and building an undercurrent in his earlier films.
In "Not Easily Broken," NOTHING is subtle.
While there seems to be a modest effort to keep the characters somewhat balanced, the simple reality is that Clarice and her mother are basically portrayed as evil, emotionally vacant women while David is portrayed far more sympathetically even when he faces the temptation of an affair. "Not Easily Broken" still, somehow, nearly works largely on the strength of the two leading performances.
Morris Chestnut, who has never really exhibited much range but is virtually always appealing, turns on his charming, "every guy" appeal and might even make David a tad too sympathetic given the fact that Clarice does have legitimate complaints about the amount of time he spends away from home and his emotional distance. Henson, on the other hand, has shown quite the range in films from "Talk To Me" to the current Oscar-bait "Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Here, Henson keeps us invested in Clarice despite the fact that she spends most of the film emasculating her husband, playing a victim and whining. It's a solid performance despite the one-note nature of her character.
The supporting cast is generally solid, as well, including Jenifer Lewis, who could play the assertive, bitchy mom in her sleep, and Maeve Quinlan, who ends up with the film's short end of the stick in a storyline that feels unnecessarily brutal.
Tech credits, particularly camera work, are an issue here. While the film is modestly budgeted at $8 million, one would think Duke could have come up with better scene transitions than repeated overhead shots of traffic, cloud scenes and occasional still shots that do nothing but lessen the look of the film and are jarring in their lack of clarity.
As previously noted, the script from Brian Bird is predictable with awkward and familiar dialogue that vacillates between preachiness and stereotypical.
In the hands of a lesser cast, "Not Easily Broken" would have been a major disappointment. Thanks to winning performances from Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson and the rest of the ensemble cast, "Not Easily Broken" manages to maintain enough cinematic traction that it's likely to appeal to its target audience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic