Marriage, that blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream, is what brings together the two families in Jumping the Broom. But bringing two families together is a far cry from blending them, particularly when they come from entirely different worlds.
In this case the bride, Sabrina (Paula Patton), comes from an old-money family with an expansive Martha's Vineyard compound, which is to be the site of the happy occasion. Jason, her upwardly mobile investment-banker intended (Laz Alonso), is the son of a working-class Brooklyn family. With those divisions established, Jumping the Broom plays out like a modern-day Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, with the conflicts played out along class lines instead of race.
Not that race doesn't play its part. Both of these families are African-American, and writers Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs set themselves the ambitious goal of analyzing as many divisions and prejudices within that community as they can fit into one narrative, whether it's wealth, culture, or skin tone.
Jason's postal-worker mother (Loretta Devine), for instance, develops doubts about her future in-laws as soon as she sees their luxurious lifestyle. And Sabrina's refusal to "jump the broom" at the wedding — to take part in a tradition dating back to the days of slavery — only confirms her assessment of them as "bougie." Her tendency to voice these opinions aloud doesn't do her any favors with Sabrina's mother (Angela Bassett).
Every wedding comedy hinges on creating threats to the union, of course, but Hunter and Gibbs pile on half a dozen potentially ruinous scenarios and subplots where one or two would have been sufficient; a little selectivity would have given the film more focus. At first, the raised stakes seem like a welcome break from the lazy sitcom jokes and miscues that dominate the movie's first act: Jason's libidinous uncle unknowingly hitting on Sabrina's aunt, the white wedding planner awkwardly peppering her speech with urban slang.
So when Jason's mother uses the blessing at the rehearsal dinner to launch into a blunt diatribe directed at Sabrina's family, the resulting argument is a bracing change of pace. It also serves to showcase the talents of Devine and Bassett, whose performances have enough heart and complexity to nearly overcome the film's deficiencies.
But the difficulties and distractions continue to mount: extra romantic subplots between attendees, skepticism and second-guessing from her friends and his, Sabrina's newfound commitment to pre-marriage celibacy, and the imminent implosion of her own parents' marriage. When a shattering family secret piles a final straw atop this camel's back, it just feels calculated and cruel. The runaway-bride climax is inevitable — but with the deck stacked so high, it's hard to shake the feeling that maybe she should just keep running.
Director Salim Akil deserves credit for keeping the film from falling apart completely. He sets a the brisk pace, and uses the picturesque oceanside setting to give the movie an inviting gloss even as the overstuffed narrative threatens to push viewers away. When the comedy veers into broader territory, he stops it short of indulgent Tyler Perry-style clownishness. And when he does get sharp, laugh-out-loud sequences to direct — there are plenty, reinforcing the suspicion that there's a better movie buried in all those subplots — he handles them with deft timing.
In the end, the experience of Jumping the Broom isn't that unlike what participants in many weddings go through: draining, barely controlled chaos punctuated by some genuinely wonderful moments. It's just that with a real wedding, it's those moments that you remember more than the chaos. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.