Ignore the "Tyler Perry's" possessory attached to the title on the advertising or that the writer/director/co-star is one of the more prominently featured faces in the campaign--Why Did I Get Married?, while based on one of Perry's popular stage productions, displays a heretofore unseen sense of realism and maturity that marks a major step forward for the multimedia hyphenate-mogul. While delivering the mix of laughs, tears, and spirituality his ever-loyal fanbase has come to expect from him on stage and on screen, this ensemble look at four marriages has universal heart and soul that would speak to a much wider audience.
This is not to say that certain elements of the film are what one would call "typical" Perry, particularly in the thread involving the very unhappily married Mike (Richard T. Jones) and Sheila (Jill Scott). This story of a woman trapped in a very dysfunctional relationship more than recalls similar plotlines in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion, and it is in this plot thread that Perry's penchant for broadly-drawn, gospel play strokes not surprisingly comes through. In fact, the callous Mike is so relentless in his verbal abuse of Sheila and her less-than-model figure that one cannot help but repeatedly ask the title question in regards to him; not helping matters is that Perry fails to include even a single throwaway line offering the barest minimal explanation as to how he got involved with her (let alone married her) in the first place. But bringing the more hyperbolic notes down to earth are the actors, in particularly the radiant and irresistible Scott; heartbreaking and completely effortless in vacillating from the character's heartache and the more playful and confident side that emerges with the entrance of the upstanding Troy (Lamman Rucker), Scott shows that she has future in film to match her existing music success. Even in more thankless parts, the actors are able to bring more to the material. The role of Mike is the most one-note in the entire film, but Jones runs with that note to maximum intended effect, plus he is able to sell the turns the character takes in the late going, however expected and contrived they may be; on the flip side, Rucker makes the designated Perry "ideal man" more real and less archetype. As Trina, the woman who finally sets into motion the clean break between Sheila and Mike, Denise Boutté has the least work with in the whole ensemble, but her striking presence makes up for what's missing on the page.
Trina remaining a gorgeous cipher works for grand design, for what she represents--as opposed to who or what exactly she actually may be--is what causes Mike and Sheila's other married friends to question their own unions after she crashes the four couples' annual get-together/retreat. With his more characteristic black-and-white concerns addressed in the Mike/Sheila storyline, Perry is free to explore more varied and true-to-life shades of grey with the three other relationships. He kind of plays with his own offscreen image as a moralist by casting himself as physician Terry, a straight-laced type married to workaholic career woman Dianne (Sharon Leal); while she is rather selfishly driven--the extent to which is revealed as the film goes on--her motivations remain understandable, not to mention Terry makes decisions that are not so much righteous than self-righteous. At the center of the cluster of stormy relationships are psychologist Patricia (Janet Jackson) and Gavin (Malik Yoba), but their outward veneer of stability proves to be less for outsiders' benefit than their own, as Patricia's need for control and order has led to icy repression. Lest the proceedings seem too heavy, there is the live wire pairing of brash, boozy Angela (Tasha Smith) and the philandering Marcus (Michael Jai White), a raucous pair so imperfect that they only make a perfect kind of sense together.
Given the outspoken nature of her character, it's no surprise that Smith gets all the best lines, and while she drops her zingers with precision timing, she handily walks away with the film by also making Angela's sincere side believable, particularly her genuine concern for her friends, children, and (ultimately) husband. That Smith is far and away the scene- and movie-stealer in no way discounts the others' efforts. White more than holds his own against the sparkling Smith, displaying a winning comic knack he too rarely gets the opportunity to display (which he really hasn't since the little-seen 1998 indie effort Thick as Thieves). Even at Dianne's most unpleasant, Leal keeps her relatable and likable, reminding of the tightrope that Eva Longoria walks weekly as a similarly vain character on Desperate Housewives (an apropos analogy, as this movie's dramedy soap take on marriage more than reminds that series--not to give to give Perry any ideas for future projects). Jackson is cannily cast, her natural reserve a good fit for a refined, repressed character, and she pulls through in her big dramatic moments; much like how Gavin is the rock in his marriage, Yoba provides a nice steadying force for the film with his understated turn. Perry may not match the gravitas others can bring to their parts, but he does prove there's more to his ability than donning drag and/or old age makeup.
Perry has been such a target for critics that it would be naive to think that the obvious progress he makes with Why Did I Get Married? will win over his many vocal detractors, even in part. But what this film should be able to do is win over a new, expanded audience previously unfamiliar with any of his work on stage, screen, television, or the page. Perry's ultimate message here (and there is one, it being a Perry film, after all) is not exactly new--any relationship that is worth salvaging (an important distinction) requires a constant give and take for the good of the union and not the individual, and the first step is simple openness and honesty, to each other and to oneself--but he places it in an entertaining, well-performed package that hence makes it connect all more strongly to the masses at large.