February 22, 2007

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Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls (PG-13)
Tyler Perry asks his demographic (church-going black women over 30, I’m guessing) for another $7.50 with Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, a syrupy and sometimes disturbing romantic comedy that is sort of an improvement on his oeuvre, sorta not.

I have my problems with Perry, starting with the fact that he so nakedly markets to his target audience with his story elements that he occasionally talks down to them. He makes the mistake of taking the valid complaints of these women as a sign that they don’t know their own minds. He tends to require his female characters to undergo some kind of humiliation or make some groveling apology, even the characters who might otherwise have appeared strong. It’s particularly icky to see women thusly jerked around in a movie that so clearly sells itself as being a movie that “understands” them.

Most of his movies also include the redemption of some formerly on-the-wrong-path character and the requirement that some rigid-minded Dudley Do-Right opens their mind to see this person not for the stereotype of what they were but for the real, trying-to-improve person they are. This sounds nice but it clashes wildly with the general Perry set-up of good people and evil people. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, the scenes of saintly characters fighting against nearly hissing villains rammed up against scenes where characters tell one another to “open their minds” or that “not all men from the hood ignore their children.”

On the bright side, Perry leaves the Madea suit (the large matriarch he played in other movies and in one-man plays) in the closet and creates a story that inches ever so much closer to having real-ish people in it.

One such nearly-real person is Monty (Idris Elba), a mechanic working to own his own auto body shop and to support his three girls, who are living with their maternal grandmother. She loves the girls and Monty, more, as it turns out, than she likes her own daughter, a self-centered woman named Jennifer (Tasha Smith), who is now the girlfriend of the drug dealer who rules the neighborhood with fear. When the grandmother dies, she signs the children over to Monty, who decides to struggle to keep his girls rather than turn them over to their clearly dangerous mother. But raising girls while working multiple jobs isn’t easy and when one is injured, Monty realizes that their mother has a good shot at getting custody.

He turns, for help, to Julia (Gabrielle Union), an uptight but highly driven and successful lawyer for whom Monty was briefly a driver. She initially says no, accusing him of playing the race card to get special favors and distrusting his claims that he truly wanted his daughters. But, strolling by the courtroom at just the right moment, she sees his dire plight and decides to take his case. It is pro bono work, though, which means most of it will need to be done after regular office hours. And, before you can say takeout-for-two, Monty and Julia find themselves trying to negotiate their unexpected attraction.

The socioeconomic implications of a yuppie black woman dating a working-class black man is the most interesting and sophisticated part of this movie. There are some real issues worth examining there, ones that are not ethnicity-specific (I fully expect to see the exact same plot play itself out in a movie about Latinas in the next 10 years). The romance could have been the focal point for some really wonderful nuanced storytelling but instead preachy subplots about the neighborhood’s attempt to fight back against Jennifer’s boyfriend and the red herring of Monty’s criminal record crowd out any really deep examination of the subject.

I’ll give Perry credit for making movies for an audience that isn’t normally on the radar of Hollywood studios. More movies on issues surrounding race and economics are necessary and it’s truly heartening to see such a movie that doesn’t involve white authority swooping in to right all wrongs in the end. But now that he has a built in audience, a track record and some experience, it’s time for Perry to work on improving the product. C-

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, drug and sexual content, some violence and language. Written and directed by Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lion’s Gate Films.