(by Dustin Putman
Commonplace. Familiar. Humdrum. Mediocre. Middle of the road. Run of the mill. These words and phrases, all of them synonyms for "average," aptly describe "Jumping the Broom," yet another soapy romantic comedy about a wedding weekend culture-clash wherein petty disagreements, catty behavior, self-doubt, and potentially life-changing revelations are the name of the game until all of the above tidily work themselves out just in time for the gooey, all's-right-with-the-world ending. The cast is game, director Salim Akil (making his feature debut) reels back the broader bits, and at least it's about a full staircase of steps above 2010's execrable, stereotype-laden horror show "Our Family Wedding." The film means well enough and isn't terribly offensive, but it's also bland, forgettable, and ultimately too pat to break away from its chains of thorough, pre-fabricated, overly conventional safeness. Article continues below
Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) is beautiful, but unlucky in love—aren't they all?—an ambitious young career woman who keeps selling herself short by sleeping with the wrong guys. Then she literally hits Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) with her car and sees stars. So does he, and it's not just from the concussion. Five months later, the two of them are happier than they've ever been in a relationship, and that's in spite of Sabrina's insistence that they remain abstinent. With her promotion at work threatening to move her to China, Jason refuses the idea of a long-distance romance and proposes to her. The ensuing wedding, taking place at the lush Martha's Vineyard home of Sabrina's well-to-do parents, Claudine (Angela Bassett) and Greg (Brian Stokes Mitchell), will not be going off without a few dozen hitches. As their families, relatives and friends convene for the weekend, Jason's and Sabrina's hopes for harmony are promptly dashed when Jason's working-class mom from Brooklyn, Pam (Loretta Devine), arrives with some major grudges on her shoulder. She's not been given the chance to properly meet Sabrina before this, and she's snooty from the get-go about what she views as her future daughter-in-law's family's bourgeois lifestyle. That Sabrina doesn't want to incorporate jumping the broom—an old slave tradition that Pam holds near and dear to her heart—into the nuptials is the last straw.
"Jumping the Broom" makes the case that it's best not to hastily leap into marriage, then watches as its protagonist couple do just that. There is no doubt that Sabrina and Jason love each other, but they have barely known each other for half a year, bicker regularly as the big day draws near, and seem to be making the decision to wed out of desperation rather than because it's truly the right time. For their parts, Claudine welcomes Pam into her home with gritted teeth, while Pam has decided before she even arrives that she doesn't like whoever it might be that is stealing her baby from her. Their passive-aggressive behavior remains largely just that until Pam lets loose a secret she's learned for the sole purpose of emotionally destroying Sabrina. Pam's selfish cruelty in this moment is almost unforgivable, which makes the quick third-act reconciliations feel all the more perfunctory and disingenuous. "I don't know who I am, how can I marry you?" Sabrina tells Jason at one point after discovering something about her past that has been long kept hidden from her. A smarter film would have defied the easy route to a happy finale and acknowledged that, yes, perhaps Sabrina and Jason should postpone the wedding, get to know each other better, and marry sometime in the future on their own terms. "Jumping the Broom" isn't that smart.
In addition to all the aforementioned principles, screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter (2003's "The Fighting Temptations") and Arlene Gibbs have filled out the ensemble with so many peripheral friends and cousins that one almost needs a family tree printed out to keep them straight. Nearly all of them are given their own subplots, and nearly all of them are creative dead ends not helped by a lack of character development. Maid of honor Blythe's (Meagan Good) fling with the chef working the wedding (Gary Dourdan) goes nowhere, while cousin Malcolm's (DeRay Davis) jealousy that Jason's friend Ricky (Pooch Hall) was chosen over him for best man duties is an afterthought. The material with frazzled white wedding planner Amy (Julie Bowen), intrigued but clueless about black culture, is better in concept than execution. A running storyline where Claudine believes Greg has a mistress on the side is not as it seems, but probably would have been more effective had it been; what's really going on plays as filler, clunkily resolved by the conclusion with an unearned throwaway line of dialogue. By refusing to leave a single subplot open-ended or anything less than neat and perfect, the picture does a disservice to itself. At a certain point, the viewer ceases believing the reality set up by the film and sees the creaky machinations of the script churning.
"Jumping the Broom" is hampered by how ruthlessly routine it is, but there are good things, too. Performances are uniformly fine, though replacing Laz Alonso (2010's "Just Wright") with a more dynamic male lead wouldn't have been an awful notion. Paula Patton (2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") is radiant even when her Sabrina is a little too rigid for comfort. The always-welcome Angela Bassett (2009's "Notorious") and forever-reliable Loretta Devine (2010's "For Colored Girls"), as very different mothers Claudine and Pam, are consummate pros who don't even have to try as they pull out their bags of comedic and dramatic skills (depending on the scene). Valarie Pettiford (2007's "Stomp the Yard") has some standout moments as Sabrina's cool, loving Aunt Geneva—her impromptu performance of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" during the rehearsal dinner is a highlight—while the very funny Tasha Scott (2009's "Couples Retreat") proves to be the movie's secret weapon as Pam's co-worker and friend Shonda, living up the high life on Martha's Vineyard while trying to deflect the advances of Sabrina's college-aged cousin Sebastian (Romeo Miller). Scott is so entertaining here that one occasionally wishes the film were about her. At least, then, it wouldn't have been so stringently by-the-book. "Jumping the Broom" is mildly pleasant while it lasts, its lack of courage in taking any chances or seeing things out to their natural outcomes where it begins to disappoint. Once over, there won't be much impulse to think about it again.