Many a romance movie ends with a wedding. Not Easily Broken begins with one.
Dave Johnson and Clarice Clark get hitched before most moviegoers have swallowed their first handful of popcorn. They smile, smooch and hop in their car, headed for honeymoon, home and happily ever after.
The thing is, marriage is a beginning, not an end. Happily ever after is a process, not a place. "It feels like the honeymoon lasts forever," Dave tells the audience. "But life has a way of knocking the h--- out of you."
They speed past the warning signs for years. Dave, now a struggling building contractor, desperately wants to start a family. Clarice doesn't. She's a high-powered real estate agent—the family's prime breadwinner with a mortgage on her shoulders and a Cadillac on her wish list. A baby? It'd only slow her down.
So Dave becomes a surrogate father to a pack of down-and-out kids he and a couple of friends mold into a baseball team. When he's not working or coaching, he plays basketball. When he's not playing basketball, he's throwing down a beer or two with buds at the local watering hole. Time for the wife? Not with his packed-to-the-rafters day planner.
A crash is inevitable, even predictable. But the rest of the movie isn't.
Dave and Clarice end up a long way from their smile-and-smooch roots. They can't go back. The question is, can they go on? Together? Thankfully, in this case, the answer is yes.
Dave and Clarice crack under the weight of their stressful, self-occupied lives. But the marital collision that first joined them together is too complete for them to be able to just walk away. Clarice drags Dave to church to get marriage counseling from their pastor and, when she suspects that Dave's having an affair with her therapist, she swings into action to save her marriage: She confronts both her own domineering mother and her rival, Julie. (Then, when Julie suffers a devastating loss, Clarice offers what comfort she can.)
One of Clarice's friends offers a good nugget of wisdom when Clarice confides to her that she thinks Dave's having an affair: The friend admits to Clarice that she cheated on her own husband, but they managed to reconcile. "It was not easy," the friend admits. "It took a long time. But he forgave me. And I will never sacrifice his heart like that again."
Even Clarice's mother—who wants Dave out of her daughter's life and tells him that Clarice is "more a man than you'll ever be," really just wants to protect her daughter. Her own husband hit her and walked out on her, and she wants to spare Clarice the same fate. When Clarice tells her mother that she never taught her "how to really care about someone, how to forgive," her mom says, "I gave you everything in me that he (meaning her former husband) didn't take."
Not Easily Broken is essentially a film without villains—just flawed people trying to do right and make their way through life. Dave coaches because he wants to mentor kids. When racial tensions flare up on the team, he tells his players that "there's only one race of people, and that's the human race." He encourages one of his old high school buddies—now a wreck of a man who spent time in prison—to allow his son to join the team to give the boy some positive influences.
Based on a book by well-known pastor T.D. Jakes (who appears in a cameo role as a real estate investor), Not Easily Broken weaves a vibrant spiritual thread throughout the narrative. The title stems from the opening scene in which the couple's pastor, Bishop Wilkes, gives them a three-stranded cord: One cord symbolizes Dave, another Clarice, and the third represents God. Those three strands, in combination, make the cord incredibly tough. The message (taken in part from Ecclesiastes 4:12) is that if the couple keeps God in their lives, their marriage will never be pulled apart.
Dave and Clarice lose sight of that third strand along the way, even though church is still clearly an important part of their lives. The film shows Dave, Clarice and Clarice's mother attending church after Clarice recovers from an accident. "The Lord's been good to us," the mother tells Bishop Wilkes, and Dave intones, in narration mode, that "church is like a hospital. It's where people go to get well."
Later, Clarice and Dave meet with the bishop, who takes on the role of marriage counselor. After a funeral in the same church, Wilkes sits beside Clarice in the deserted sanctuary and asks her whether God has been an integral part of her marriage. When she admits that He hasn't been, Bishop Wilkes says, "Without that third strand, you find yourself sitting here, alone."
Characters refer to the blessings they've been given, to heaven and to the God-given roles of men and women. Prayer factors into conversations. As do issues related to God's will. Clarice discusses feng shui—the semi-spiritual, Eastern discipline—with one of her clients.
Dave says that his honeymoon with Clarice was a "little slice of heaven" and that they "didn't come up for air for two days." But by the time the film hits second gear, the sizzle has fizzled. Both talk about how they need to rekindle the romance (sometimes in frank terms), and Clarice goes all-out to seduce her husband, dressing in a flimsy nightie and setting lighted candles around their bed. By this time, though, Dave's heart has shuffled closer to Julie (at one point he dreams that she's rubbing his back with oil as rose petals shower around them), and he confesses these feelings to Clarice—abruptly destroying her seductive mood.
Dave and Julie indeed grow closer during the film. But just when both are at their weakest, emotionally, and they share a passionate kiss, Dave turns away from her before it can go any farther. "I can't do this," he says, and walks out.
One of Dave's friends is a womanizing soon-to-be divorced man. (Dave calls him a "hound.") Another says he's going to stay away from his house for at least 15 minutes (after a fight with his wife) so she'll think he's having an affair. There's talk about sexual attraction and tension.
Bam! A vehicle T-bones Dave and Clarice's car with a thud and squeal. The accident shatters Clarice's leg. The car crash is sudden and violent: Moviegoers are "in" the car when it happens, a camera perspective that lends an aura of frightening realism. At the hospital, we see blood on their faces.
A boy dies, apparently after slamming his head against a pool wall. (The impact takes place off camera.) Dave and his friends take part in some rough-and-tumble basketball games, one of which features some pushing and shoving. Dave throws something against a wall in anger. When he tries to encourage one father to allow his son to play baseball, the father reacts angrily and tells Dave that, if he ever comes to visit again, he'd better come armed. Clarice's mother recalls her husband hitting her in the face. It's suggested that one of the kids Dave coaches may have an abusive father; we see the dad grab the scruff of the boy's neck.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dave and his friends are occasionally shown in a bar with beers in front of them, and sometimes they have one too many. Clarice asks Dave whether he's drunk one night. "No, I'm not drunk," he answers. "I just had a beer with the fellas." Dave's high school pal spent time in prison for selling cocaine, and he apparently shows up drunk—bottle in hand—at a Little League practice.
Not Easily Broken contains coarse language, and it deals bluntly with sexuality. The people on display here are far from perfect, and there are times when Dave and Clarice don't seem quite certain whether they even want to save their marriage.
But not many films have the courage to dive into the sometimes messy realities of 'til death do us part. Many conveniently run the credits when the real story starts rolling. This one jumps into the fray with both feet and tells us a truth Hollywood very rarely voices: Happily ever after doesn't happen without a lifetime commitment, hard work and—here's a 21st century shocker—God.
Not Easily Broken is a little uneven, a little melodramatic. But so, sometimes, is life. Yes, it has an happy ending, but a realistic one. It acknowledges that even when we ride off into the sunset, dawn breaks again the next morning—and it matters with whom we rode.