Tyler Perry, Atlanta's favorite writing/acting/directing/cross-dressing showbiz mogul, has a new movie coming out Friday. It's called Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns and will likely be one of, if not the, most popular movie in the country this weekend.
Perry is a showbiz King Midas.
According to Box Office Mojo, his films have grossed $200 million since 2005, while costing less than $37 million to produce. Two of his four movies debuted at No. 1. In 2006, he published a No. 1 best-selling novel. And last year's debut of "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," his sitcom on TBS, was the most watched sitcom broadcast in the history of cable. At this point, the man could fart into a microphone and thousands of people would pay $2.95 per minute to listen.
But the most important thing I know about Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns is that I have no intention of going to see it. I know, with near certainty, that I will not enjoy it.
You're more likely to catch me paying $8.85 for 180 seconds of Tyler Perry's Fart Line than you are to see me coughing up $7.50 for a matinee ticket to this movie.
The fact is, even though I work for a newspaper that covers Atlanta culture (and Tyler Perry is, by far, Atlanta's most popular cultural figure) I'd never seen any of his movies until I started writing this story. I've never even considered seeing one.
Why? That's what I'm trying to find out.
I've considered the possibilities.
I'm a movie snob: I like all kinds of movies. I love Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, but also Superbad, and Napoleon Dynamite, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Devil Wears Prada – the Meryl Streep parts, anyway.
And while I probably rent a higher-than-average number of earnest documentaries and European art-house pictures on Netflix, I'm a sucker for schmaltz and sentimentality.
I still watch When Harry Met Sally pretty much every time it's on TV. I cried during the kiss montage at the end of the Italian drama Cinema Paradiso. I even teared up during My Giant, a not-especially-funny comedy starring Billy Crystal and former NBA center Gheorghe Muresan. I was drunk, but still.
Hell, the fact that two of the three movies mentioned in the above paragraph star Billy Crystal should effectively immunize me from all present and future charges of cine-snobbery.
OK, so, no, I'm not a movie snob.
I'm a racist: I don't think I'm a racist. I consider myself more of a misanthrope than a racist. Gimme 10 people of any race, religion and or creed and I can find a reason to strongly dislike nine of them. My relentless negativity does not discriminate.
I can't relate to people who aren't like me: Tyler Perry's stories revolve around black, church-going women who struggle with relationships and faith. None of those categories applies to me, but I don't see why that should preclude me from liking the movies.
I enjoy the work of enough black American artists in enough media, from Professor Longhair to Cee-Lo, from Aretha Franklin to Erykah Badu, from Gordon Parks to Spike Lee, to know I'm not closed to black American artists whose work evokes uniquely black American experiences.
Hell, I'm not now, nor have I ever been, a gay Spaniard obsessed with matriarchy – but seeing Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, in Spanish, with subtitles, was one of the most affecting emotional experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. The fact is, I appreciate movies that make me step outside of myself a bit.
So then why? Why do I instinctively hate Tyler Perry movies I've never seen?
To try to unravel the mystery, I gathered three female, African-American co-workers who are fans of his work for a screening and a discussion. Movies are communal experiences. Perhaps watching one of his movies with three people who like Tyler Perry could turn me into a fan. If not, maybe they could at least help me figure out what it is about his work I don't like.
The panel was assembled thusly. I got up from my desk and asked the first black person I saw if she liked Tyler Perry. That was Tiffany Roman, a CL intern. As luck would have it, she said yes, and agreed to be on the panel.
A few minutes later, I was in a meeting and happened to be sitting next to Chanté LaGon, our operations editor. After the meeting, I asked her if she likes Tyler Perry. Only the movies, she says, not the TV show.
"That show is terrible," Chanté says.
I told her what I was going to do and she agreed to join the panel.
Chanté then suggested I ask Kenisha Allen, the paper's advertising coordinator, to join us. Kenisha's a big fan of Perry's work. Kenisha agreed and the panel was assembled.
We were joined in a conference room by CL's online manager Edward Adams. Ed ran the DVD projector and recorded the discussion for a podcast. He also had more to say about the movie, and about Tyler Perry, than we four panelists.
The movie we chose to watch was Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?, an ensemble romantic comedy. Chanté and Kenisha say it's the best of his movies. It was released last fall, to great financial success, but lousy reviews. Critics can't stand Tyler Perry's movies. He knows this. That's why he doesn't set up pre-release screenings for movie critics. Why help critics write a bad review when your fans are going to flock to your movies anyway?
Why Did I Get Married? is about four couples, old friends all, whose relationships are turned upside down after a group vacation to a luxurious mountain cabin. It's like The Love Boat meets The Big Chill, only all the primary actors are black.
Janet Jackson plays a psychologist. Perry plays a pediatrician married to an attorney. It's the first of his movies in which he doesn't appear in drag as Madea, the pendulous-breasted, loud-mouthed family matriarch who is his most famous fictional character.
With everyone gathered, we dim the lights and hit play.
I try to keep an open mind, but my hackles are raised during the opening credits. Kenisha notices that I'm jotting down notes.
"Are you marking down how many times you see his name?" she asks.
"Yes, we've seen four [opening credits] panels and we've seen his name four times," I say. "That's something I find kind of off-putting. Tyler Perry in a Tyler Perry film produced by Tyler Perry directed by Tyler Perry in Tyler Perry's Tyler Perry."
"It's a brand," Chanté says.
I know he's trying to brand himself and his work, but I think he overdoes it. Isn't it enough to put your name in the title of all your movies? There's a point when putting your name everywhere goes beyond branding and becomes insecurity and vanity. And if there's one thing we writers understand, it's insecurity and vanity.
The movie begins with the four couples making their way to the mountain cabin. With the exception of Jackson's character, who first appears giving a guest lecture on a college campus, the rest of the characters are introduced with painful, forced exposition.
You know Tyler Perry's character is a successful pediatrician married to a successful lawyer because while they're sitting in a Range Rover driving to the cabin, he pretty much says, "I'm a successful pediatrician," and she pretty much says, "I'm a successful lawyer."
Singer Jill Scott's character is a kind, overweight woman, married to an asshole sociopath. The over-the-top implausible setup for their characters is that they board a plane bound for the group vacation, accompanied by the husband's mistress, who happens to be Scott's thin, sexy, archetypically skanky friend.
And if that wasn't silly enough, the flight attendant tells Scott's character she's too fat to keep her seat on the plane. Instead of walking off the plane with her, the husband laughs and sits tight with the mistress as Scott's character deplanes in humiliation. It's terrible writing and it makes me cringe.
My fellow panelists agree that the exposition is over-the-top, but they don't seem to mind.
"He takes extreme characters to make a story," Tiffany says.
"I know that wouldn't happen on an airplane, but you feel so bad for her character," Chanté adds. "When the good guy comes around [later in the film], you feel that much better for her character. It's a very effective tool to draw you in. It's off-putting for you, but I'm engaged."
"You don't have to force it," I say.
"Tyler Perry's main audience is African-American," Tiffany says. "His character saying 'I'm a black man and I'm a pediatrician,' that's not said in a lot of mainstream movies."
Because black audiences are so used to seeing black characters depicted badly, she suggests, the forced dialogue of "Hey, I'm a rich doctor married to a lawyer" is almost necessary to make the point.
"It's a peek into the black elite," says Ed, who was pretty neutral about this movie, but who, as a black man, resents the boorish black stereotypes in some of Perry's previous work. "Is that why the stereotyped characters are hard to believe?"
"No," I say. "The [premise] isn't hard to believe. The part that's grating is the dialogue."
Chanté acknowledges my point, but it doesn't bother her. "There's a more subtle way to do that, but it's a matter of setting the stage," she says.
Basically, the entire panel sees how unsubtle Perry's writing is, but they don't mind as much as I do.
By the time the characters are at the cabin, it's pretty clear to me that there's another trait in his movies pushing me away – a trait I hadn't picked up on in the trailers or anything I'd read about him to point – Tyler Perry movies are essentially chick flicks. About 40 minutes into the movie, I realize that perhaps my instinctive disinterest in his work has more to do with sex than race. For the same reason I don't keep up with Harlequin romance novels, I'm not interested in Perry's work.
The female characters are the emotional focus of Why Did I Get Married? and much better developed than the men, who are just two-dimensional eye candy.
Scenes of the female characters talking among themselves are lively. Scenes of the men talking among themselves are wooden – not because the actors are bad (they're not), but because the dialogue is stilted and awkward. We're talking porn-movie bad.
Why Did I Get Married? gives the impression that Perry doesn't often hang out with men in social settings – and that if he does, he's not paying attention to how they talk to one another.
The group acknowledges that men are not Perry's target audience. "I don't think there's a whole bunch of guys who are gonna be like, 'I gotta go see the new Tyler Perry movie,'" Chanté says.
"In other films, he presents the man of your dreams. Never the woman of your dreams," Tiffany says.
"You've seen his plays," Ed says. "The audience is primarily single, black women."
"My thought before watching this movie was, 'Is the reason Tyler Perry's work doesn't connect with me that I'm not black?'" I say. "Now, I'm thinking the reason it doesn't connect with me is that I'm a man."
"I think you're right," Chanté says. "I've got female friends who are not black who are all about this movie."
As the DVD continues, it's clear that while I'm not contemplating suicide, I just can't get into this movie. The only character I genuinely like is Angie, a loudmouthed drunk played by Tasha Smith. She's extraordinarily cruel to her husband, but has great comic rhythm and timing. The rest of the characters are just annoying.
Perry wants us to feel sympathy for Jill Scott because her husband is cruel to her and cheating on her because she's overweight. But her character's defining trait isn't her weight; it's that she's a simpering nitwit – unaware of her husband's obvious infidelity. All she seems to do is grimace and look to God to help her through her difficulties.
Once again, my thoughts were not shared by my fellow viewers.
"It makes this movie and Tyler Perry engaging to a certain audience," Chanté says. "If you have that background, or if you've been in situations like that, and you rely on your faith to get you through certain things, you look at that, you know exactly what she feels like. I have talked to God in the car before."
"Exactly," Tiffany says.
Ed makes the point that Tyler Perry's audience is not just about single black women. "It's for avid church-goers," he says. "He's brought church-goers into the mainstream, where they have movies and plays to go to where they feel safe."
"I perceive that it's there," I say. "But it totally goes by me. I don't relate to that at all."
"What are your spiritual beliefs?" Ed asks.
"I don't have any."
"I think that has some relevance because everyone is talking about their religious connection [to the movie] and you don't have one," he says.
"The overt Christianity of it, the turning to faith to help you through a problem, is not how I relate to the world," I say.
"All of his films have a faith-based concept in them," Kenisha says.
"The reason why I like this movie is because there isn't that much [religion] in this one," Chanté says.
The discussion continued, but after that, my mind was made up. If Why Did I Get Married? is Tyler Perry's best movie and the least overtly religious, how am I ever going to get into any of his other ones?
The answer is I'm not.
Tyler, I tried. I really did. But your movies aren't hitting me because you're not aiming at me. I'm not a hater. I'm just a 34-year-old, off-white, not-religious man who doesn't have any relationship angst he needs soothed. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Diff'rent Strokes. Now that was a good show.
Featuring: Andisheh Nouraee, Chante LaGon, Kenisha Allen and Tiffany Roman.
Credit: Produced and Edited by Edward Adams / Video courtesy Lionsgate Films
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