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Tyler Perry tries, at least, to nurture `Daddy's Girls'

The ever-popular `Madea' storyteller resorts to much of his usual formula, but he pushes himself too.

February 16, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Ever since he first hit theater screens Tyler Perry has presented something of a critical conundrum. Perry built a loyal following with his gospel-based theatrical productions before moving on to grass-roots movie hits with "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion," the latter marking his debut as a director as well as writer. Yet there was something off-putting about his films -- ramshackle and careless in their construction, with an eager-to-please attitude that would often devolve into fart jokes and interminable direct-address sermonizing.

Perry's work isn't fueled by anger or righteous indignation; rather his films are meant as soothing, healing salves to make things seem better and more hopeful, regardless of circumstances. The undercurrent of class tension -- all his films feature some variation of a boho-utopia versus straight-world divide -- isn't his main concern, and is largely left unexplored.

"Daddy's Little Girls" (omitting Perry's obligatory possessory title), the first of his films to be written directly for the screen, tells the story of a thirtysomething Atlanta garage mechanic (Idris Elba) struggling to maintain custody of his three daughters against his vindictive ex-wife. Along the way he meets a forceful, upscale lawyer (Gabrielle Union), who despite initially resisting, eventually falls for him and helps with his custody case.

Although the film's title and advertising make it seem that the story's focus would largely be on the mechanic, his children, and his budding romance with an unlikely love, Perry's weakness for stylized melodrama leads him to bring the custody battle to the fore, with an adjacent subplot regarding neighborhood drug dealers. For a film called "Daddy's Little Girls" there is precious little of the girls themselves, winningly played by real-life sisters Sierra, China and Lauryn McClain.

Though overall his filmmaking style remains rudimentary, Perry is enough of a showman to at least try for the occasional bit of visual flourish, aided once again by cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita. More surprising is Perry's inability to write back-and-forth dialogue with any real wit or verve. He is at his best when writing speeches, and some of the film's best moments come when Union is given snappy monologues on the state of contemporary relationships and African American maleness. She delivers the lines with just the right combination of snootiness, sass and indignation.

Whether by design or default, Perry has no use for conventional notions of filmic story structure or characterization, which is what gives his films, even at their most annoying, an oddball and idiosyncratic charm. His use of a slow-blues reading of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" under a climactic, cathartic sequence that depicts a car crash, a fistfight and a near-riot is as bold as it is weird.

The overarching awkwardness in "Daddy's Little Girls" comes at least in part from Perry's effort to synthesize the seemingly conflicting elements of his work -- the slapstick, the melodrama, the post-Oprah piousness -- that have made his previous films such a jumble of ideas and agendas.

It is exciting to think that someone in Perry's position is indeed challenging himself, as he could presumably coast along on tried-and-true formulas for quite some time. In at least making the effort to develop as a writer and filmmaker, "Daddy's Little Girls" signals Perry's growing pains.

"Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, drug and sexual content, some violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In general release.

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