Considering most of my calendar years begin by reviewing movies by Uwe Boll or involve dreadful horror pictures that make little sense, I was a little wary of being assigned Not Easily Broken, a dramatic film I knew next to nothing about. Going in practically unaware of the existence of the movie, I was delightfully won over by the movie’s simple story of a couple whose marriage is starting to deteriorate and how they respond to that, both as individuals and as a couple.
As they are warned in the movie’s opening wedding ceremony, marriage isn’t easy. Life will dole out many obstacles that will cause a marriage to splinter. For Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice (Taraji P. Henson) those unforseen obstacles include an injury that devastates a professional sports career for Dave, leading to Clarice being the breadwinner for the family - and that’s before the story even gets going.
Jump forward ten years or so and Dave and Clarice have even more to contend with. A shopping list of issues includes his dedication to a Little League Team, her dedication to her job, his desire for children, her lack of interest in those children, an impressive on-screen car accident that leaves Clarice seriously injured, and Dave’s eventual attraction to Clarice’s physical therapist, who has a lot of the things Dave was hoping life would give him, including a son. It’s easy to see how a marriage could sever apart rapidly, but early on the couple is assured by their minister that a relationship that has man, woman, and God in it is “not easily broken.” Unfortunately for Dave and Clarice, they seem to listen to Clarice’s mom for guidance more frequently than God.
I’m becoming a big fan of Morris Chestnut, the more I see the actor. Even though The Perfect Holiday was a dud of a film, Chestnut stood out as a high point of the film. Here he’s given a lot more to work with as the central character to the film. Through both his on screen presence and his soulful voiceovers, Chestnut brings an emotional weight to the movie and a solid depth to his character. Dave isn’t just a player or a dissatisfied husband looking for a quick score in the sack to make up for shortcomings elsewhere. He’s a genuinely nice guy; one who doesn’t want to give up on his marriage just because it hasn’t turned out the way he’d like it to. When his dedication finally starts to unravel, it’s clear that heartbreak and frustration are at the root of things.
I wish I could say the same kind things about Taraji P. Henson, who plays the other half of the man and wife equation. Unfortunately Henson isn’t given quite the same depth as her male counterpart with her role as Clarice. Not to sound sexist, but it’s pretty clear a man wrote the script, because this is a problem that follows most of the women through the movie, including Clarice and her mother, Mama Clark (Jenifer Lewis). Only the tempting other woman, Julie (Maeve Quinlan) is fleshed out enough to have a somewhat dynamic characterization. To be frank, Clarice is a bitch through most of the movie, making it very difficult to cheer for the marriage to stay intact. In fact, it’s hard to understand what Dave saw in this woman in the first place. There are a few moments that left me ready for Dave to bail without ever looking back. But, he’s a nice guy… at least a nicer guy than I would be if I were married to Clarice.
Although there are quite a few other solid performances, special recognition should also be noted towards Kevin Hart. Here he plays Tree, one of Dave’s friends. Again, instead of the player type I would have expected, Hart plays a character who is overly dedicated to his own wife, and pretty much sells the idea that men need to be submissive towards their women. Instead of the annoyance that usually leads to me calling Hart a poor man’s Chris Tucker, here he finds the perfect balance between comedy and drama, providing excellent comedic relief that hits just right at just the right moment. It’s a memorable performance, but not because it’s an obtrusive one, which is exactly how this character needs to be.
As I mentioned above, the biggest flaw for Not Easily Broken is that there is more than one moment in the film where you are ready for those marital bonds to break, easy or not, and for Dave to move on. This isn’t just my response to the film, but one that was vocalized several times by the audience I saw the film with. It’s actually a flaw that works well for the story though, because it reinforces the idea that marriage isn’t easy, and that life will try to tear a couple apart over time. I just didn’t expect the audience to side with the obstacles in a movie that tries to support the sanctity of marriage as its message.
The storytelling flaw isn’t my only contention with the movie, which features an odd visual style that feels like something out of the ‘70s. The picture is restrained with dull colors throughout much of the movie, and a few scenes carry an unnecessary starkness that jolted me a bit compared to the rest of the picture. It’s a minor thing once the audience adjusts to the fettered visuals, but I wish there was some sort of easily discernable artistic rationale behind the visual approach.
Not Easily Broken is a pleasant surprise for this early in the year - a touching, at times overwhelming story that transcends both race and creed with its message. We’ve gotten the theme that marriage is not a perfect science before from movies like Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, but Bill Duke achieves a much stronger result with this picture. I just hope this picture doesn’t wind up being overlooked because of its poor release date and small screen count.