Conflict is the source of all drama, so naturally, troubled marriages have always been a popular subject for storytellers. Bill Duke's adaptation of T.D. Jakes' novel Not Easily Broken gives us yet another example of a marriage on the rocks, but it only gets half the equation right. The title comes from a line of dialogue spoken in the movie's first scene by Bishop Wilkes (Albert Hall) as he performs the wedding ceremony of Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice (Taraji P. Henson). He wraps a three-stranded rope around them -- a rope that represents the husband, the wife, and God. He assures them that as long as they make sure they each stay as entwined with God as they do with each other, their bond will survive anything. But, a few years later, their marriage hits a few serious road bumps. Namely, Clarice refuses Dave's requests to have a child because her career is both demanding and successful. One night, on the way to an awards banquet where Clarice will be named Salesperson of the Year, they get into a serious car accident that leaves her nearly crippled. Because of Clarice's wheelchair-bound condition, her mother (Jenifer Lewis), who never approved of Dave, moves in with the couple. Eventually, doctors suggest they hire a physical therapist, so Dave enlists the help of Julie Sawyer (Maeve Quinlan), a woman Dave's best friend wants to date. At first, Clarice is so full of anger that she refuses to be helped, but eventually Julie -- and Clarice's mom -- break through her self-pity, and inspire her to do the hard work required to walk again. However, her difficult recovery widens the emotional distance between Clarice and Dave, and as they drift apart, Dave finds himself drawn to single-mom Julie.
Not Easily Broken fails as a drama because Clarice seems to be responsible for all the problems in the marriage. Dave, as we are told numerous times by different characters, is a perfect man -- modest, handsome, and hardworking. His devotion to the little-league team full of troubled children he coaches is her biggest complaint about him, but he involves himself with them precisely because he wants a child that Clarice won't give him. Dave tells us that throughout history men have been judged by how well they "cultivate and protect," and the film makes the case that women do a disservice to their marriage when they don't let their men do those things. Clarice is an independent, successful woman whose career ambitions appear to be, according to the bishop who counsels them, the single issue causing the couple's unhappiness. This one-sidedness makes the movie a homily rather than a drama. Granted, for the filmmakers, imparting these moral lessons is a higher goal than simple entertainment, but audiences absorb these kinds of lessons much more readily when a story feels like a natural reflection of real life, rather than the manipulations of a writer trying to prove a point.
The problem with Not Easily Broken is that the main character, Dave, doesn't evolve -- he's already superior to his wife right from the start. It's Clarice who has to learn all the hard lessons about changing yourself for your partner, and all he has to do is be a strong and stable presence -- which he unwaveringly is -- whenever God throws tragedies at them. Julie, his sole temptation, never registers as a real threat precisely because Dave never seems even the slightest bit corruptible. Those who take something of value from a sermon about the necessity for self-sacrifice will certainly be drawn into this well-meaning movie, but those looking for genuine drama should probably look elsewhere. leave a comment --Perry Seibert