Not Easily Broken is a film not easily reviewed. For every element of the production that doesn't work, there's something that pulls the film back from being one that's easy to dismiss. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used to the word "marginal" to qualify their film reviews when they could have been easily swayed to "thumbs up" or "thumbs down". Not Easily Broken is as "marginal" as a movie as you may see in all of 2009. From moment to moment, Bill Duke's domestic drama vacillates from heartbreakingly real to manipulatively melodramatic, sometimes in the same scene. There's much to like about Not Easily Broken, but not enough to ultimately recommend.
Morris Chestnut plays Dave Johnson, the narrator and lead of Not Easily Broken, a kind, gentle, sweet guy who may be pulling away a bit from his wife but not without understandable reason. Yes, he spends arguably too much time with his friends Tree (Kevin Hart) and Brock (Eddie Cibrian), but he also feels like he's needed more outside of his own home than within it. Dave was going to be the star. He had a promising baseball career that was cut short after a bad slide at the end of his rookie career. After working low-paying construction jobs for years, Dave has had to watch his wife, Clarice (Taraji P. Henson), become the bread-winner. Not only does Clarice bring in the money, which can be hard on a man, but she too often heeds the advice of her nagging mother (Jenifer Lewis) and the couple has put off having children longer than the very paternal Dave wanted to. Dave clearly finds more joy with his friends and with the kids he coaches on his baseball team than he does within his own marriage.
Dave and Clarice find their lives turned upside down after a horrible car accident leaves Clarice in need of physical therapy. Clarice's obnoxious mother moves in and a pretty physical therapist named Julie (Maeve Quinlan) is hired. Despite his best efforts, Dave feels even more useless as Julie helps Clarice with her physical recovery and his mother-in-law stands in his way at every turn, even blaming him for the accident. The husband is pushed away from the not easily broken union of marriage and nearly into the arms of another woman. Tragedy arises again in the final act and Dave learns a lesson about not letting the roles of a modern man - father, husband, friend - define him.
The reason to see Not Easily Broken is simple - Chestnut and Henson. These two talented actors ground their characters in one hundred percent believability. Dave and Clarice are well-rounded, interesting people, rare in any kind of domestic drama, and it’s partially due to Duke’s calm direction but mostly because Chestnut and Henson are simply very good here. I can’t figure out why Chestnut never became a bigger star and Henson, so great in Hustle & Flow, Talk to Me, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is cementing a reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation.
Ultimately, Not Easily Broken falls into the trap of trying to be way too many dramas at once. Infidelity, career choices, physical therapy, the role of religion in marriage, mother-in-law drama, and a final act twist that feels manipulative and completely unnecessary clutter a screenplay that’s constantly bringing the film down. It's a testament to the performances of Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson that they can create believable characters through the melodrama. When Duke and writer Brian Bird let these people feel real, like in a great marriage counseling scene with their priest, Not Easily Broken is as good as any recent domestic drama. Sadly, it doesn't happen enough to keep the film from falling apart from time to time.
Rating: TWO AND A HALF BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: January 9th, 2009
Starring: Morris Chestnut, Taraji P. Henson, Maeve Quinlan, Kevin Hart, Wood Harris, Eddie Cibrian, Jenifer Lewis, and Niecy Nash
Director: Bill Duke
Writer: Brian Bird