|In ''Not Easily Broken,'' Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson play an LA couple whose marriage is tested.|
'Not Easily Broken" is a tub of soapy clichés. But it does grant Morris Chestnut a kind of "Eureka!" moment. After years spent strolling his way through battle-of-the-sexes comedies (perhaps you caught him and Vivica A. Fox wipe the floor with each other in "Two Can Play That Game") and horror-thriller atrocities (he was "and Morris Chestnut" in the credits for "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" and "The Cave"), he's softened the texture on the cocky buppies and hard-bodies he usually plays. This time he's just Dave Johnson, a down-on-his-luck building contractor in Los Angeles put through a domestic ringer after his flamboyantly successful real-estate agent wife, Clarice (Taraji P. Henson), has a car accident.
Dave coaches a youth baseball team with two buddies (Eddie Cibrian and Kevin Hart). He's trying to start his own business, although not fast enough for Clarice, who resents anything that takes Dave's attention off her. Clarice, of course, is one of those women who berates her adoring man for failing to see how hard she's working. I suppose that car accident, which leaves her in need of physical therapy, is meant as a kind of celestial comeuppance. The Lord does work in mysterious ways - or at least pastor T.D. Jakes does.
"Not Easily Broken" is based on one of the best-selling preacher's novels, and all its lessons have been hammered into a screenplay full of coincidences only a daytime television devotee could love. When Dave meets a physical therapist (Maeve Quinlan), how long until he asks her to work on his wife? And how much longer until the wife starts to suspect that the cute, single (and white) therapist wants her man? How much longer until the husband's slutty best friend (Cibrian) gets a little miffed that the therapist prefers his married buddy to him? As a former devotee of daytime television, I do believe I heard the piano chime from "The Young and the Restless" at least once.
For most of "Not Easily Broken," I wondered why the movie wasn't worse. Then I remembered it was directed by the veteran Bill Duke, who applies ample TLC. A lot of what he has to work with is excessive (one sequence drums up ludicrous horror-thriller suspense over whether a credit card will be approved; another plot strain has Wood Harris as a bitter thug whose son Dave is trying to save). But as an actor himself, Duke doesn't mind indulging his cast. Henson manages to bring a degree of decency to what is basically an emasculating Catherine Keener part. Sometimes Duke overindulges. Jenifer Lewis plays Clarice's relentlessly overbearing mother and Dave's new housemate, and I never thought I'd wish for less of her, since she's always underused. But a little of her thunder goes a long way here.
While everybody else is cutting up, including Niecy Nash as one of Clarice's co-workers, Chestnut is on his best-ever behavior. And as usual, he meets his fan-mandated contractual obligations. (Not easily broken? Perhaps not. Frequently shirtless? Of course!) But he doesn't coast on that superhuman smile of his or the virility it advertises. He's likably average for once, hurting, confused, and no more heroic than he needs to be. What Chestnut does here isn't a feat of acting so much as a leap of emotional vulnerability. He rolls with the many demoralizing punches in "Not Easily Broken" like a gentleman.
At some point Dave tells Clarice "come here," and there isn't an R&B singer alive who could put as much easy sex into the command. If Clarice doesn't appreciate this man, I know several hundred thousand women who would.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.