October 18, 2007

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Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (PG-13)
Tyler Perry has heard your criticisms and he will ponder them while he warms himself next to a golden fireplace ablaze with hundred-dollar bills with Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, a movie about four couples trying to save their marriages.

Perry is rich and he’s gotten that way by creating plays, a book, a TV show and movies that appeal to an audience willing to pay to discover each one. It’s hard to argue with that kind of overwhelming success, especially when it comes with twinges of commentary about society, class, race and, in this movie, marriage, particularly in the way that modern life seems to be working against an eternally committed marriage. I don’t count myself among the Perry fan club but I am impressed that he attempts to address these things at all. When was the last time you saw marriage politics addressed with any kind of depth in the movies? When is race ever addressed unless in some historical drama or, indirectly, in some teen tale of a kid getting himself off the streets (these movies almost always address race, leading a regular movie-goer to wonder if the only time movies can talk about race outside of some big self-conscious Oscar-y drama like Crash or the too-rare Spike Lee movie is when nobody’s watching)?

Race isn’t the focal point here, it’s marriage, an equally sticky subject fraught with all kinds of trouble (I pity the couple that sees this movie on a date; definitely prepare completely unrelated subjects to discuss afterward). Patricia (Janet Jackson) is a therapist who has written a hugely popular book about marriage with herself and three couples as the subjects. She and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) travel with these friends every year to a couples retreat where Patricia gives them exercises to do to strengthen their relationships. She and Gavin wouldn’t seem to need an exercise — snuggling in bed and always with the kisses and the hugs. But they’re still recovering from a recent tragedy and sadness has become almost a third person in their relationship.

For Shelia (Jill Scott) and Mike (Richard T. Jones), there is an actual third person in their relationship — Trina (Denise Boutte). She’s supposedly Shelia’s friend but when the airplane kicks the plus-sized Shelia off the plane, Trina doesn’t seem to mind flying with Mike to the retreat (this year in Colorado) while Shelia drives alone.

Terry (Perry) might as well be driving to the mountains alone because his wife Diane (Sharon Leal) has brought her job with her. A lawyer who recently made partner, Diane is glued to her cell phone and, we learn, more likely to cuddle up with her legal briefs than with Terry. And, despite Terry’s oft-stated desire to have more kids, Diane seems to be set on not adding to their family.

For Angela (Tasha Smith) and Marcus (Michael Jai White) it’s not future children that are a problem, it’s his children from a previous “ghetto baby mama,” as Angela regularly calls Marcus’ ex. Though the woman regularly bad-mouths Angela in front of Marcus’ kids (one of whom is also Angela’s daughter), Marcus is unwilling to really interfere, making an already pushy, slightly crazy Angela even more fed up.

Most Tyler Perry movies have at least one fangs-bared, pure-evil villain and in Why Did I Get Married the characters closest to that are Mike and Trina. Trina has no redeeming qualities and Mike is a machine gun barrage of emotional abuse toward Shelia (who though initially a bit spineless is a nearly saintlike character). Angela, the other villain candidate, is more defensive (and drunk) than bad and we get to see a bit of complexity in her character.

We get to see a bit more complexity in all of these characters than we have in the characters of the past Tyler Perry films. He seems to be getting more adept at mixing the jokes with approaching-realistic story and character development. A scene where the characters gathered for dinner finally spill all of each others’ secrets does feel like a set piece pulled straight from the stage but it also feels like a piece of theater that could make you forget you’re watching “drama.” Perry’s dialogue is funny and often quite natural. Particularly when the men are talking amongst themselves, you get the sense that you are listening to a real conversation. This is, perhaps, how Perry and his friends talk or at least some funnier version of that. That the women’s voices aren’t quite as smooth isn’t so surprising with a male script author.

Some of the soapier elements (and then she’s kicked off a play and then she meets the cute sheriff) of Why Did I Get Married? strain believability as do some of the more dramatic, wordy fights between husbands and wives (it’s my experience that during a real couple fight “why are you so UGH!” becomes a pretty standard example of the level of expression). But this movie does get right some of the scarier parts of marriage — the fear of losing somebody, the not always knowing what to do, the difficult balance between each person’s needs and ambitions. Even if Janet Jackson isn’t exactly Helen Mirren in her subtlety in portraying these things she does a fair job. Not surprisingly, Perry is probably the most comfortable with the material with the fun-to-watch Smith taking a close second.

Perry knocks out these films at a fast clip — his Daddy’s Little Girls came out in February. While I understand striking while the iron (or, in this case, the market) is hot, I suspect that a few more months of work on the technical aspects of this movie and on things like script and performance would push Perry’s movies miles ahead in quality. The modern family dramady genre is wide open and waiting for somebody to set the standard. B-

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual references and language. Written, directed and produced by Tyler Perry (who adapted this film from one of his stage plays), Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married is an hour and 58 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.