Daddy’s Little Girls’ bring agony

“Daddy’s Little Girls”LionsgateWritten and directed by Tyler PerryStarring: Gabrielle Union, Idris Elba, Louis Gossett Jr., Tasha Smith, Tracee Ellis Ross, Malinda Williams, Terri J. Vaughn and Gary Anthony StrugisRated PG-13/95 minutesOpened Feb. 14, 2007Two out of four stars

In a recent interview about his movies and plays, Tyler Perry — the creative mind behind the box-office hits “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion” — said, “The Tyler Perry brand is a brand that represents and means family, it means forgiveness, it means God, it means hope.”

He forgot to mention it also means lead-footed melodrama, cartoonish characters, poorly timed jokes and Christian themes about as subtle as being pounded on the head by Mr. Eko’s Bible stick from “Lost.”

His newest film, “Daddy’s Little Girls,” is no different.

You have to give Perry some credit, though. His characters portray an underrepresented group of blacks in movies: the average churchgoers. The usual Hollywood stock of drug dealers and hoods still have a place in his stories, but they’re always painted as “bad guys” in simplistic, moralizing colors. Perry focuses more on mothers, fathers, white-collars and blue-collars wrestling over domestic dramas such as spousal abuse or being a single parent. Everyone fights, everyone forgives and faith in God is reaffirmed via some ridiculous plot turns.

This is the third Tyler Perry movie in as many years and it’s been sort of morbidly interesting watching him grow as an artist. His most popular character, a crotchety old battle ax of a woman named Grandma Madea, who wallops loathsome men like she was playing Whack-a-Mole at the carnival, is absent from “Daddy’s Little Girls.” That sound you hear is every movie critic in the nation breathing a collective sigh of relief. Without Madea (played by Perry in drag), there are no inappropriate fart jokes or “Big Mama” nonsense that disrupted the drama in his past efforts.

I’m glad she’s gone, not just because she was annoying, but because she was Perry’s crutch–someone he could lean on if his dramatic writing was, shall we say, a little suck-tastic. It was brave of Perry to leave Madea out of this one. Now we’re free to direct all our gripes and winces at the suck-tastic writing.

Idris Elba plays Monty, a hunky, sensitive mechanic (how everyman!) who raises his three young daughters all by himself. He’s in a custody battle with the girls’ mother, Jennifer (Tasha Smith), a clomping, snapping, Wicked Witch of the West Side who shacks up with the neighborhood drug lord (Gary Anthony Strugis) and doesn’t hide it.

Of course, any judge would take one look at Jennifer, with her big hair, hoop earrings and contemptuous gum-chewing — not to mention the known drug lord hanging on her arm — and award the kids to the angelic Monty, but no. There’s a fire scare at Monty’s apartment, prompting Social Services to jerk its knee and hand the kids over to the laughably ee-veel Jennifer, who encourages her oldest daughter to sell weed at school.

Monty turns to his church for guidance, where the pastor is conveniently preaching about how good things come to those who are faithful. God would make a lousy screenwriter — he’s too obvious.

Right on cue, a beautiful, no-nonsense lawyer named Julia (Gabrielle Union) offers to help Monty win his kids back. She’s supposed to be the best lawyer in town–never lost a case–and yet she fails to do a criminal background check on her client, which complicates the case (and their budding romance) at the most plot-convenient time. What sort of idiot lawyer would not do a criminal background check, especially when custody of children is involved?

Of course, Monty could easily have cleared up any misunderstanding about his past in about five words. But that would deny us the part of the movie in which boy loses girl, and they mope around town, separated, contemplating their futures set to a sad R&B song — perhaps one sung by Brian McKnight.

Perry seems like a smart, friendly guy. He recovered from an abusive, impoverished childhood after Oprah encouraged him to put his thoughts on paper. That was the start of Perry’s playwriting career, which led to movies. There are a lot of inspiring, socially relevant ideas in his work; he just needs to learn how to shape them into stories that aren’t dumb to the nth degree.

“You, sir, are a very tall man. Congratulations. Wow. That’s all I wanted to say. Wow.”