The films of Tyler Perry
When last we visited with Tyler Perry, he had just produced his third movie, and second as a director, Daddy's Little Girls; it was the closest thing to a flop in his entire career. But by this point, the Tyler Perry Studios Money Machine had already become a big enough, self-sustaining entity onto itself that one little misstep meant nothing; and that is why, in 2007, the Tyler Perry Rubicon was crossed, with the release of the second film written and directed by the man in eight months, Why Did I Get Married?, thus establishing a spring/fall release schedule that would serve Tyler Perry Studios well for a number of years to come.
Based on Perry's 2004 play - the first of his stage works not taking place in the Madea Universe - WDIGM? is a study of four couples who have all known each other since college: pop-sociology author Patricia (Janet Jackson) and Gavin (Malik Yoba), who harbor a Dark Secret that is so readily guessed that I truly don't know if Perry even meant for us to be surprised by it, or if for the first time in his career he was simply refraining from beating us over the head with exposition; pediatrician Terry (Perry himself, playing a man) and lawyer Diane (Sharon Leal), growing apart due to Terry's increasing frustration at how little time Diane has left for him and their daughter; henpecked Marcus (Michael Jai White) and alcoholic Angela (Tasha Smith), the film's comic relief, insofar as it is funny to watch desperately broken people screaming past each other about infidelities and substance abuse; and, perhaps most importantly, Mike (Richard T. Jones) and Trina (Denise Boutte), who isn't actually his wife; that would be Sheila (Jill Scott), whom he forces to leave the plane because he doesn't want to pay for her extra ticket, because she is so fat and he takes every opportunity to make her feel bad about. So she has to drive to the middle of nowhere where the 8 friends and a cheating lover are spending their annual "let's talk about our relationship troubles in a mutually-supportive environment" get-together.
Ah, Mike! this film's formulaic example of Perry's Rancid Black Man archetype, the cartoon villain who imbalances what comes powerfully close to being a film made up of people who bear a pretty close relationship to actual people. How grateful I am to you for existing, and for representing everything bad about heterosexual men in the most reductive, contrived way, for with you, there'd be awfully little to keep WDIGM? from shriveling up and blowing away. Here's what I was not expecting, not from this and not from any other Tyler Perry picture: it's pretty much "just" bad. In fact, it can be argued that it is worse as a piece of craftsmanship than either of Perry's directorial efforts that preceded it, but let's hold on to that for a moment: when I say that it is just bad, what I mean is that it's shoddy filmmaking that is not, like Daddy's Little Girls or Madea's Family Reunion, or hell, like the Perry-scripted Diary of a Mad Black Woman, bad in a weird and interesting way. What had thus far been most interesting about Perry's films is how freely they dip into the grotesque: the slippery moral worldview that doesn't have a problem promoting evangelical Christianity and retributive violence skipping hand in hand; the depiction of good and bad characters painted in garish broad strokes like a parody of silent melodrama; and in the case of the two Madea films, drag comedy that burbles up screaming from the bowels of hell, leaving human dignity and good humor alike torn and twisted in its wake. The last of these, at least, is partially attended to by Angela, but since she is played by an actual woman - and since Tasha Smith is really, really good at this kind of thing, another one of the supremely talented black actresses given a chance to shine by Perry since white Hollywood isn't likely to come knocking - she's not so hypnotically tawdry as Madea.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying: Why Did I Get Married? is the first genuinely boring Tyler Perry movie, on account of being the most tasteful and restrained Tyler Perry movie by the end of 2007; except that without the distraction that the crudeness of his earlier works provided in such abundance, it's much easier to pay attention to how acutely untalented Perry is as a filmmaker, which gives WDIGM? the aura of being worse than the earlier films, even if, in a very real and objective sense, it is better.
How acutely do I mean? Damn acutely. What I think I noticed first was the exaggerated, almost primitive quality of the editing: in this film, if a line of dialogue is extra-important, you can be sure that the image will cut in from a medium shot to a close-up just to nail that one line before cutting back, despite this being a really distracting and ugly way of editing a movie. The same is true of important objects - both of these traits are especially pronounced in the opening scene in which Patricia lays everything out for us, which is in general an extraordinary little master class in all the things wrong with the film at their very worst: editing like a cudgel, and dialogue that communicates ideas in the most tortured way, and performances that either don't try or are unable to break out of the straitjacket of the aforementioned dialogue.
Patricia's recent book, also titled Why Did I Get Married?, is a study of marital communication skills conducted on the same group of eight with their approval, and in the opening scene, she is discussing it with a college class. This allows Perry to explain the film's narrative hook in the most bite-sized, unsophisticated way, while also serving as an unimpeachable study in How Not to Write a Movie Script. Right off, I can think of such examples as:
-Patricia refusing to talk about her friends' personal lives in detail, immediately before doing so without so much as a segue. She also identifies one of these friends in terms that can only refer to one human being in the whole world, and this privacy-shattering information does not matter to what she's saying at all.
-She describes her friends in stock adjectival terms that you would not use to talk about anyone other than the characters in the script you are pitching.
-She replies to the question asking, essentially "isn't a contrivance that you and Angela are able to stand each other whatsoever?" by trotting out the phrase "a historically black university" in a casual manner that no native speaker of English would ever dare attempt.
-Her stilted interaction with her husband can only be explained as an deliberate attempt to force the class to ask about the couple's shared trauma, which she then refuses to discuss, because Dark Secret.
The whole movie feels more like a collection of themes that characters need to express in order for the film's message to come across, rather than ideas that normal people would say in the course of conversation, and even then there are certain core notions, like the 80-20 rule, that I honestly don't think I comprehend, no matter how finely Perry dices it up and serves it to me.
And so we are left with a film that is made up largely of Statements and less of character arcs or human psychology; this leaves the entire cast stranded other than Smith, who is just having fun, and Scott, who gets the only honest-to-God dramatic arc of the whole movie. What this has to do with the way people behave in relationship is unclear to me, not that I would necessarily anticipate otherwise from the never-married Perry; the whole thing is unmistakably a lecture, though, not in the morality play manner that Christianity is jammed into his other scripts, but in the manner of a dialectic. It's very hard not to see the stage play in all of this, not because it hasn't been opened up, but because this kind of Let's Discuss Ideas drama simply feels more theatrical than cinematic.
This was the first Perry movie to completely abandon the lower classes; I wonder if that has something to do with it. In all of his precious scripts, the poor people seem much more lived-in than the rich people, who are basically fairy tale villains or saviors, while the miserably improverished at least have vitality, albeit the absurd vitality of clowns and buffoons. At any rate, Perry's professional class strivers have little personality and no spark; this makes them more believable, I suppose, but far duller.
Before I depart and leave this sodden mess to its own mediocrity, I want to point out that the film boasts the first explicit homosexuals in Perry's cinema, a pair of horrible white men on a train who embody every camp stereotype that you can cram into 90 seconds, right down to a lap dog in a dress. I mention this mostly because it will come up again later, and I wanted to mark this signpost of another first, albeit a small one, in the auteur's development.