Tyler Perry knows his audience.
His shows are stage-tested hits, laugh-lines polished for maximum giggles.
And he's learning how to make movies. His latest stage-to-screen adaptation, Why Did I Get Married?, has the shiny veneer not just of African-American affluence (its setting), but the slickness of a filmmaker who knows how to fill the screen with beautiful people saying sassy things in beautiful settings.
It's a movie that showcases just how this Friend of Oprah and Face of the New Atlanta is becoming the New Douglas Sirk.
Sirk was once the king of lush, woman-centered, woman-empowering melodramas such as All that Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow.
And if Perry's about anything, he's about empowering women.
Married explores, in a Dr. Phil-approved way, the question of its title. Four affluent, beautiful couples take group vacations and talk out their relationships every year.
But even Dr. Patricia (Janet Jackson), who has studied them and written a best-seller about them, knows they're all in trouble. Or will by the time this year's trip is over.
Terry and Diane (Tyler Perry and Sharon Leal) are too busy to have time for each other and that has him resentful.
Sheila (Jill Scott) is praying to save her marriage to Mike (Richard T. Jones), a selfish jerk who can't stop making cracks about her weight and who is traveling with her luscious "friend," Trina (Denise Boutte).
Marcus (Michael Jai White) and the colorfully combative Angela (Tasha Smith) can't stop fighting.
And Dr. Patricia, "Perfect Patty," and her man, Gavin (Malik Yoba), are coping with a tragedy they still can't talk about.
The friends have secrets that simmer beneath the surface, waiting for the mouthy Angela to have a few drinks and set things to boiling. She recognizes Trina for what she is (a single woman-temptress) and isn't shy about sharing.
Trina: "Now you belong in the kitchen."
Angela: "And you belong on a corner. Need a pimp?"
Yeah, it's a laugh line. Do real people really talk like that, in any social setting? No.
The trouble with Perry polishing his jokes in front of a stage audience is that the characters become one-liner cartoons. Many situations, such as Sheila being forced off a plane because of her weight, with her husband egging the prissy white flight attendant on, are simple pandering.
Perry always creates lovely, all-black worlds where black people relate to one another without outside (white, racial) influences on their lives. Here, he tumbles over into parody, serving up white sissies on a train, rude white sales clerks and hostile white airline employees.
Scott gives the only subtle performance here, partly because her character is the moral center to the film. But every actor has his or her moment to shine.
Perry's pretty good as a performer, too. Like Sirk's 1950s films, there's a gay sensibility to Perry's movies, even when he's not wearing his Madea dress. The men are objectified, shirtless and swooned over, the women worshipfully dolled up and martyred. No wonder Oprah loves him.
There are some big laughs, and Why Did I Get Married? has a few self-help tips that would serve any marriage, not just Southern black Protestant ones ("Prayer" and "God" are words that come easily to even the worst Perry sinners.).
But maybe the best reason to see any of his movies is one line Patricia says, considering everybody's white-collar careers, Range Rovers in the driveway, their designer clothes, pricey wristwatches and Blackberries.