Never mind what Tyler Perry tells you; God clearly hates single people. Otherwise, why would I be sitting here alone, on my first uncoupled Valentine’s Day in years, soaked to the bone from the horrible slushstorm that hit Boston today, about to watch my third Tyler Perry film in as many Februarys? The circumstances that brought me here are complex mix of the professional, the personal, and the meteorological, but their confluence has created a situation so miserable that its root cause can only be metaphysical. Somehow or other, I’ve pissed off the Big Guy, and it’s time for penance.
I’m doing something a bit experimental with this review, in case you couldn’t already tell. Inspired by my colleague’s recent forays into real-time reviews of straight-to-DVD trash, I’m going to do my best to publish this review as a direct transcription of my handwritten notes. That’s right, what you’re reading has been (is being?) written down longhand in the theater before and during the 5:45 screening of Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls (oh, how I hate the awkward double-possessive of that title) at the AMC Boston Common, so that what you get is my immediate, unmediated response to the film. I do this for three reasons: 1) to give you, the reader, a rare glimpse inside the thought process of a critic without the artificial primping and polishing of my reactions, 2) a Tyler Perry film seems the ideal venue for such a project, as his films work on the audience’s most immediate responses and can only suffer for deeper consideration, and 3) mostly because I refuse to sit down once again and spend hours reliving the experience of a Tyler Perry film just so I can generate scads of hate mail. Twice is quite enough, thanks.
And what’s all these goddamn M&Ms ads? Enough already.
I should note here, with just moments before the show starts, that I am sitting in the very back row of the theater, contrary to my usual practice. This is partly so that I can better observe the reactions of the audience — I am not part of Perry’s target demographic — but mostly because I have been frightened ever since the rabid response to my review of Diary of a Mad Black Woman that I would be recognized and berated — or perhaps beheaded — by one of my furious correspondents. (Also, it allows me to take off my boots and let my socks dry a bit.) As I seem to be the only Caucasian man in the theater — and certainly the only person furiously scribbling on a legal pad — I can’t help feeling slightly conspicuous.
Joy! The lights are dimming. Let the magic begin.
First, the trailers. The Ex: Is Zach Braff trying out for Ben Stiller’s career? My God, why? Amazing Grace: Of course. They’re going to include anything they can find that’s remotely religious or contains any black actors. God bless studio marketers and their literal-mindedness. But what the hell is Albert Finney doing in this movie? I Think I Love My Wife: Chris Rock takes on marital malaise. Given his previous forays into writing and directing, I’m not optimistic. Ratatouille: New Pixar. Looks cute. Delta Farce: Sweet Lord. Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, and D.J. Qualls invade Mexico thinking it’s Iraq. Fag jokes abound. Would it do any good to write my congressman? Does it help that he’s Barney Frank? Pride: Terrence Howard coaches an inner-city swim team. At least it’s not Hilary Swank.
Oooh, ooh! Feature presentation.
Perry has his own production company, Tyler Perry Studios. This is deeply troubling, but it does confirm what I immediately suspected about his ego when I saw Diary.
Inner-city Atlanta, the present day. A gratuitous shot of Ebenezer Baptist Church, for a cheap infusion of resonance. Hey, it’s Black History Month, y’all. Willie (Louis Gossett Jr.) owns an auto repair shop, where he employs Monty (Idris Elba), a gifted mechanic who wants to buy the shop.
Perry is credited with writing, directing, and producing. I think he also catered. Remind me to check the end credits.
Monty goes to see his three daughters — ages five, seven, and 12 — at the home of their maternal grandmother. Grandma tells him that their mother, Jennifer, hasn’t been to see them in months. Jennifer lives with Joe, the neighborhood’s biggest drug dealer, and she “don’t care about nobody but herself.” Grandma also mentions that she’s dying of cancer, which Monty has failed to notice, despite the persistent hacking cough, the dozens of pills she takes daily, and the turban she wears to hide her baldness. Monty’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
At Grandma’s funeral, Jennifer (Tasha Smith) shows up and makes a horrible scene, abetted by Joe (Gary Sturgis). She’s quite a hootchie. Heavy-handed “dramatic” music plays. Ugh.
The girls must move into Monty’s dingy one-bedroom apartment, which they apparently have never seen before (?). He takes on extra work as a chauffeur to help support the girls, and his first customer is an attorney named Miss Rossmore (Gabrielle Union). Union is a beautiful woman, and if that weren’t enough, we know from the movie poster that she’ll turn out to be Monty’s love interest. We’re only 10 minutes in — this is moving at record speed. Perry must plan to introduce a thousand complications to fill out the running time to feature length.
Complication number one: Miss Rossmore is an uptight bitch who treats Monty like shit. He’s too “street” for her tastes, and horrifies her with everything he does. Perry has not directed Union to underplay. We see her in court, where she’s clearly a skilled litigator. Meanwhile, in another courtroom down the hall, Evil Joe evades prosecution on drug charges because the cops conducted a warrantless search. The judge is hostile to the prosecutor and seems positively stoked to see a drug dealer go free. Because that’s how judges are.
Outside the courthouse, Jennifer and Joe see Monty and mock him for his chauffeuring and his poverty. They repeatedly invoke the word “slave,” which is probably more hurtful than “nigger” when coming from another black person. Jennifer makes a good point, though — how did she have three babies by him, since they seem congenitally incompatible?
Miss Rossmore comes out and behaves unpleasantly some more — we learn that she has first name, though: Julia. Her friends Cynthia (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Brenda (Terri J. Vaughn) are waiting for her and insist that she go on a blind date. Said date wears a striped, shiny, bright-blue suit and resembles Luis Guzman. Quite a catch. At dinner, he mispronounces every word on the menu, from filet mignon to “scrimps,” and announces that he’s between jobs and has decided to embark upon a career as a rapper at the age of 40. He offers an impromptu freestyle. I crawl under my seat. The audience goes wild with hilarity.
Is anyone in reality as rude and superior as Julia? I’ve known some cold bitches in my time, but really. She gets offended that Monty takes a personal call while driving, though she’s just hung up her cell phone, and is then pissed that he has to got to the hospital to see about his children. And the desk nurse is worse, ordering him to take a seat and wait for her to tell him where the girls are and if they’re OK. Perry can’t ever just let anyone have a kinda bad day; it has to be the worst day in recorded history.
It turns out that the girls somehow started a fire in his apartment. The oldest is 12, yet they couldn’t figure out that they should flee the fire until Monty’s neighbor Maya (Malinda Williams), who is also Julia’s personal assistant — that’s how Monty got the chauffeur job, broke the door down. I guess the apples didn’t fall far from the tree.
Why has Monty not gone after Maya? She’s cute as hell and clearly likes his kids. I guess dating the woman who lives right next door and doesn’t initially hate him would just be too simple.
A woman from Social Services arrives and blames Monty for the fire. She refuses to let him see the girls and immediately gives custody to Jennifer — can she even do that without a hearing or anything? Monty becomes violent and inarticulate. Well, more than usual. The important thing, though, is that Julia starts to notice that he’s a person and not just a servant.
Upon hearing Monty’s woes the next day, Willie observes that he needs help from God and two more white people. One of the better lines so far, but is he implying that God is white? This goes against everything I learned about Black Jesus from Nell Carter on “Gimme a Break.” Sound advice, though, and soon Monty is in church, where the minister advises that he’s on the verge of a change for the better. Hell, I could have told him that, and I don’t even have access to the script.
At Joe’s large, immeasurably tacky apartment, we see that Jennifer’s mothering skills make Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver. (Same initials — I never noticed that before.) Jennifer snaps at the youngest girl, China (China Anne McClain), for weeping and annoying Joe, then sends her to her room. A man in the row in front of me bellows, “Rip out her weave!”
Outside the church, Joe and his thugs are hanging out right across the street; we learn that he finds them at the local high school. And we thought military recruiters in schools were bad.
Back at Joe’s, Jennifer explains to the oldest daughter, 12-year-old Sierra (Sierra Aylina McClain — apparently the girls are all sisters in real life, too), that “it’s time for you to start your own hustle. … The number one rule to the game is Never Get Caught. Now, I’m about to go get a drink — you want one?” It’s nice how the characters are so simply and consistently good or evil. Thinking is hard.
Soon, Monty is called to the school because Sierra has been caught with a joint. Apparently Joe told her that he’d kill Monty if she didn’t take it to school and sell it. Monty, a flashback tells us, has his own prior run-ins with the law and can’t afford to risk getting arrested (this flashback makes no sense later when we learn what his legal problems were actually about).
Monty goes to see Julia to ask for her help getting custody of the girls back, and she tags him with several racist stereotypes, asking, for example, if he wants custody of his children so that he can get a check from the government. She’s pretty, but she’s disgusting.
She’s set up on another blind date, this time with Chris, a handsome, well-dressed lawyer. My friend one row up cries, “He’s gay!” Relieved that he’s not a loser, Julia flirts openly with Chris. All goes well until she’s about to kiss him good night, at which point his heavily pregnant wife rolls up in a minivan with their three other children and the family dog. Sorry, man, I don’t think he’s gay.
Monty and Jennifer’s custody hearing — Julia happens to pass by the open courtroom and wander in. Soon she’s standing up and volunteering to represent Monty. She gets a continuance and Monty is allowed one visit with the girls per week, though Jennifer retains custody. Afterward, Julia chats with Monty and learns how much he’s sacrificed for his daughters. I’m actually a little moved by his speech myself, though I’m a soft touch when it comes to parents and kids.
Monty attends a neighborhood meeting, where Joe seems to be the only subject. The entire community is terrified of him and won’t testify against him. They won’t even call the cops because they won’t come to their neighborhood.
At Julia’s office, she and Monty go over his tax returns and court records. She sees that he’s the rare “brother in the hood” who is devoted to his children. When she asks if there are any surprises in his past that she should know about, he briefly flashes back to a party scene, but her phone rings with a friend trying to set her up on another blind date. She demurs and winds up discussing her romantic problems with Monty, who lets her know that he’s available.
Back at Joe’s, the girls witness Jennifer and some of Joe’s thugs beating a man who owes her money for drugs. They protest, and she explains her duty to wise them up to the harshness of life on the street. The road to hell…
Monty offers Julia a ride home from the office because her new driver has left for the night, but it’s her birthday, so he insists on taking her out for some fun first. He takes her to a small neighborhood jazz bar where she’s intimidated by the clientele, though knocking back a few shots takes care of that. Soon they’re grinding on the dance floor, then they’re back at her place, where all looks promising for a hookup until she runs to the bathroom to throw up. I’m actually surprised that Perry didn’t have Monty explain that he’s a good Christian man and could never sleep with Julia before they were married, but he seems to be soft-peddling all that stuff this time. And good riddance.
At lunch the next day, her friends are pleased to see her in the glow of a new infatuation but appalled that it’s with someone poor. They assume that he’s a no-account who will only drag her down to his level. Later, when he drops by her office to see her, she’s awkward and embarrassed, but she still accepts his invitation to come to his place for dinner and meet his daughters properly. They, naturally, are skeptical and do whatever they can to make her uncomfortable, but the fire has been lit, and Julia and Monty wind up making out in the kitchen after the girls go to bed.
It’s around this point that I’d generally taper off from describing the plot any further for fear of revealing too much, but in this instance it’s a moot point, since it’s been clear from the beginning where everything was headed. Monty will get custody of his kids and Julia will win them over. The shocking thing from Monty’s past that he didn’t tell Julia will be revealed but then will turn out to have been a big misunderstanding. The neighborhood will stand up to Joe, and he’ll go to prison, either taking Jennifer with him or leaving her alone and destitute. Monty will buy the shop from Willie, and everybody will live happily ever after. (Actually, I have to go back in here and add that the way Perry reaches the predictable conclusion is entirely unpredictable and somewhat disturbing. Perry has implicitly advocated violence in earlier films, but the solution he presents for Monty’s problems is, I think, dangerously irresponsible.)
The thing is, as contrived as most of these situations are, Daddy’s Little Girls is like a Rossellini film compared to Perry’s earlier efforts. It certainly helps that there’s no Madea, but there’s also a greater emotional truth in this situation. Monty may be just a bit too good to be true, and Julia’s initial bitchiness is beyond excessive, but the issues of class are very real and are handled with what, for Perry, is subtlety. Surprisingly, I find myself rooting for Monty and Julia both as a couple and as individuals. It’s melodrama at the Lifetime-movie level, but even that is a step up for him. Perry will never be a great filmmaker, or probably even a good one, but he’s moved into the ranks of the mediocre. As Pajiba’s resident authority on his oeuvre, it’s really the best I could hope for, short of his retirement. Or a dry pair of pants.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Daddy's Little Girls / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | February 16, 2007 | Comments ()