Gabrielle Union as Julia
Idris Elba as Monty
Louis Gossett Jr. as Willie
Tasha Smith as Jennifer
Tracee Ellis Ross as Cynthia
Malinda Williams as Maya
Terri J. Vaughn as Brenda
China Anne McClain as China James
Gary Anthony Sturgis as Joseph
Cassi Davis as Rita
Lauryn Alisa McClain as Lauryn James
Sierra Aylina McClain as Sierra
Juanita Jennings as Katheryn
Maria Howell as Wife
Rochelle Dewberry as Miss Rochelle
Directed by Tyler Perry
Gabrielle Union’s presence elevates Perry’s material beyond what would have been a predictable, shoddily thought-out drama with production values worse than anything on television.
Monty (Idris Elba) is a mechanic trying to keep his ex-wife Cynthia (Tracee Ellis Ross) from gaining custody of their three little girls since she’s been involved with a powerful local drugdealer. When he convinces the smart and beautiful attorney Julia (Gabrielle Union) to assist him, sparks begin to fly.
There comes a time when you feel like you’re ready to get back on the horse that bucked you. In this case, I’m returning to the world of Tyler Perry after suffering the abomination that was “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” optimistic that setting aside Madea’s dresses and his offensive comic characters to focus on the filmmaking will alleviate some of my problems with Perry’s earlier film.
My biggest problem with Perry’s work is that he tries way too hard to kowtow to his core audience of black women, filling his films with the type of racial stereotypes and myths that are unforgivable in this day and age. He also feels the need to make it clear who the good guys are, who the bad guys are (they’re usually involved with drugs and crime), and then drive those differences into his viewers’ skull as if they’re brain-dead morons with a third grade education. Attempting to set aside these preconceived notions of Perry’s work while watching “Daddy’s Little Girls” was hard, but there are many other obvious problems that are even harder to overlook even when there are things that make this movie better than “Diary.”
The general premise of a single father trying to get his young girls away from their bad mother isn’t too bad, and setting up a romance with his beautiful lawyer also isn’t that alien or foreign to basic film storytelling. The problem is that Perry’s execution is rarely up to snuff with other movies that have dealt with similar material. It takes less than ten minutes to set up the story as Monty returns home from work at the garage to his three little girls and his very sick mother-in-law. She tells Monty that he needs to go to court in order to keep the girls away from his ex who has been hanging out with a rich, local drugdealer. Minutes later, the old woman is dead and we meet Monty’s ex, who sure enough is a leather-clad hellion who wants the girls for no apparent reason except to spite her ex. Shortly after, Monty gets a job as a driver for Gabrielle Union’s Julia, a beautiful and smart partner at a law firm who has no interest in “fraternizing” with “the help” but who agrees to help Monty in his case.
So Perry has this decent idea for a story that any good filmmaker could do something with, but it’s immediately apparent that it can’t sustain a 90-minute movie. Instead, we get a series of scenes that act as filler, like when Julia goes on a series of bad blind dates set up by her snobbish friends. (Again, Perry feels the need to win his audience over by hitting them over the head by confirming that there are no good black men except for Monty.)
The movie tends to lose focus of the fact that it’s supposed to be about Monty getting back his girls, who are being abused and mistreated by his ex-wife and her boyfriend, since halfway through, it starts to become more about his attempts to woo Julia. It’s almost funny watching these romantic scenes between them, then cutting to these insanely funny scenes showing the nightmare his girls have to endure. It’s hard to take it too seriously mainly due to the outlandishly over-the-top performance by Tracee Ellis Ross as his ex-wife. Looking like she’s at least 10 years older than Monty but wearing ridiculous trashy outfits, she makes it impossible to take the drama very seriously. Sometimes, it also seems like Perry is making things up as he goes along, especially when he throws another monkey wrench into Monty and Julia’s relationship, and at a certain point, you need to give up on any sense of credibility or realism if you want to stay sane.
At least Perry has three solid actors trying holding things together, the best of them being Gabrielle Union, who really is quite excellent. Instead of rising above the movie’s problems, she’s able to elevate the movie, as she’s able to sell her character and Perry’s words by being the strongest actor in the film. If Perry’s entire production budget was used to pay Union for her services (and that may be the case), it would have been worth every penny. Idris Elba is also good, turning Monty into the type of character whose struggle you can empathize with, and the chemistry between the two of them is strong enough to make their scenes together work. The legendary Lou Gossett, Jr. also has a couple good scenes as Monty’s boss, but other than that, the Tyler Perry Players are mostly amateurs who make the scenes without Union almost comically bad. The one exception is Malinda Williams, who isn’t that bad as Maya, but she keeps popping up in every single scene, as a customer at the auto shop who just happens to be Monty’s neighbor and works for Julia. It makes you wonder how the two of them never met before.
Considering the film’s few strong points, it’s a shame that Perry isn’t a very good filmmaker, as the production values on display are awful despite having more money than stronger films. It’s almost like Perry is learning how to make a movie as he shoots it, leaving gaffs that make the film feel like a MADtv spoof of a really badly made film. Most scenes are shot with a stationary camera, and whenever there’s any sort of camera movement, things start to go in and out of focus. Other scenes seem to be shot using different lighting and film stock so they look off when edited together. It’s the type of mistakes that would be avoided by anyone who takes one semester of film school, and things like that often destroys any illusion that you’re watching real lives unfold. Then again, Perry’s silly characters and situations do a good job destroying that illusion, as well.
The Bottom Line:
While “Daddy’s Little Girls” is somewhat of an improvement over the cross-dressing shenanigans of Perry’s Madea films, he has to work on his filmmaking and storytelling skills if he ever wants to be taken seriously. Then again, the fact that he’s making millions with a few flimsy ideas and a few good actors means there’ll probably always be a place for Perry in a world where there are moviegoers who find Spike Lee’s films too challenging.