“Jumping the Broom” set on Martha’s Vineyard

“Jumping the Broom” set on Martha’s Vineyard

“Jumping the Broom” is a star-studded romantic comedy about the class differences between the extended families of the central couple Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton, “Precious”) and Jason Taylor (Las Alonso, “Just Wright”).

Sabrina and Jason meet cute at the opening of the film (she hits him with her car) and within 30 seconds fall deeply in love. She is offered a job in China and though they have only been dating a few months, they rush to get married before she moves overseas. This sets up the dramatic tension of the movie: because their betrothal is rushed, the families have not had a chance to meet until the wedding. Both Sabrina’s wealthy family and Jason’s working-class mother are less than enthusiastic about meeting their future in-laws.

The film centers on the young couple’s wedding at her parents’ home on Martha’s Vineyard, and the setting is crucial to driving home the cultural differences between the two families. Filmed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the location does a good job masquerading as an exclusive home on the Vineyard — it is plausible that the family compound could be hiding somewhere in Cow Bay or Katama or Chilmark. The house and its place on the Vineyard is a clear marker of the Watsons’ class: they are very rich (reinforced by the whole family’s fluency in French, which they speak to each other constantly) with a very big house on a very secluded waterfront property staffed by cooks, maids, and assistants.

Once everyone convenes at the Vineyard compound, we understand that the film is really about the two mothers, played by powerhouse actors Angela Bassett and Loretta Divine, who last starred together as best friends in “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995.

The mothers’ animosity is instant and intense, and although both Sabrina’s rich mother Claudine (Bassett) and Jason’s poor mother Pam (Divine) are pissed about their children’s rushed wedding, it is Pam who spends the film loudly insulting and undermining everyone she meets. To be sure, Claudine and the other Watsons treat their lower-class guests with disdain, but Pam is the most irrational character here. She is uncomfortable with her future in-laws’ wealth, and while a fish-out-of-water tension is common to romantic comedies (“Meet the Parents” anyone?), Pam comes across as unhinged and crazy, compensating by being insufferably rude to her hosts, pouting and trying to manipulate her son, and snooping for secrets to use against Sabrina and her family.

The film is chock-full of romantic comedy clichés and a few very funny moments thanks to Mike Epps and the rest of the supporting cast, so why does “Jumping the Broom” feel like a letdown? There are simply too many things happening in the movie: There’s a surprising amount of drama built on secrets, lies, and miscommunication. There are peripheral love stories that have no connection whatsoever to the Watson-Taylor plot. And ultimately the main characters are so one-dimensional as to be unrelatable.

Sabrina is naïve and childlike, Jason is weak and cannot stand up to his mother to protect his bride. Claudine is resentful but well-mannered and comes across as a pinched and scowling ice queen, sniffing dismissively at Pam’s every word. Pam is so outrageously misguided in her anger that even she knows she has gone too far when she reveals an overheard long-held Watson family secret to Sabrina and nearly wrecks the wedding in her desperation for control.

Finally, this movie does not represent a Vineyard that most of us know: it is a fantasy of what rich Vineyarders are like, and how they treat those less-wealthy than themselves. Akin to Touré’s controversial New York Magazine article “Black and White on Martha’s Vineyard” of 2009, the film flattens a real black Vineyard experience into one of old-money decadence absolutely at odds with the interests and reality of its working-class counterpart represented by the Taylors.

Predictably, the film ends with reconciliation and joy, with both families dropping their weapons to finally celebrate the love that their children share. The reconciliation is marked by the couple’s decision to “jump the broom” at their wedding, which Pam had requested but they had resisted earlier because it was too folksy. Anyone in the know will recognize the film’s title as an American slave-wedding practice, whereby slaves were not allowed to legally marry on plantations, so they created the tradition of jumping over a broom laid on the ground to mark their betrothal. Despite the days of conflict, Sabrina marks her forgiveness by incorporating Pam’s family tradition in her uptown wedding ceremony. Ultimately, the ending satisfies and everyone leaves happy and returns to their pre-wedding lives.

“Jumping the Broom” opened on Mother’s Day weekend to great box office numbers — opening in third place behind huge summer blockbusters “Thor” and “Fast Five” and beating the other big romantic comedy of the weekend, “Something Borrowed.” It is rare for a female-driven black romantic comedy to compete in these numbers on opening weekend, especially without a slapstick caricature like Tyler Perry’s Medea to drive the humor, so this is exciting news. It also passes the Bechdel Test, which requires a film to follow these three simple criteria: (1) It has to have at least two women with names in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. A surprising number of movies fail this test, so I am thrilled that “Jumping the Broom” placed in the top three films its opening weekend.

In the end, despite its flaws, “Jumping the Broom” does attempt to show more realistic characters than some of the broad comedic caricatures that have dominated films lately. Like most other rom-com (romantic comedy) fictions, this film is a little bite of visual candy that pleases in its opulent fantasy.

The problem is that the filmmakers tried to do too many things with these characters, which ultimately flattened them into one-dimensional clichés. I hope that the film’s opening numbers will indicate to Hollywood bigwigs that there is a thriving market for women-driven comedy and stories about realistic people so that someone else can succeed where “Jumping the Broom” fell short.

Maggie Gates, a lifelong seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. She is currently working on a dissertation about childhood, citizenship, and immigration in the 1960s.