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'Daddy's Little Girls' has chemistry but not enough magic

Gabrielle Union plays Julia, a lawyer, who falls for Idris Elba's Monty, a mechanic, in "Daddy's Little Girls." (ALFEO DIXON)

In "Daddy's Little Girls," Gabrielle Union plays a haughty corporate attorney who falls for a kind and extremely handsome Atlanta mechanic, played by Idris Elba. This being a Tyler Perry production (he wrote, produced, directed and did not screen for critics), naturally, there is trouble ahead -- and not just that Julia wears stilettos and Monty wears Timbs, although there's that.

Monty lives in the 'hood. He has three daughters. They live with their mother. The mother chain-smokes, has a bad weave, and dates the local crack-slinging gangsta. They want full custody. Monty can't afford a lawyer. Julia agrees to go pro bono. Her friends don't approve. Hello: "He's the help." Will their love survive his secret rap sheet, nosy interrogations from his daughters, or the persistent threats from his neglecting baby mama and her abusive thug-a-boo?

If the suspense is killing you, you're probably on your way to the theater right now, and you can't be stopped. The movie marks Perry's second outing as a film director. The mostly watchable "Madea's Family Reunion," from last year, was his first.

Here Perry shelves his crowd-pleasing Madea character and aspires for the impossible mix of 1950s social melodrama, gospel-inflected public service announcement, soap opera, R&B video, girl-centric sitcom on the CW, and any episode of "Good Times," featuring Janet Jackson's oft-affronted Penny. Were Perry a visual director or a logical, patient screenwriter, that hybrid would count as a feat of singular ambition. Instead, it seems like the product of an abbreviated attention span.

Once in a while, Perry's shot-making goes for broke and breaks down. In an early scene, we discover that Monty's girls have been staying with his ex's mama. She's got a nasty cough. And after she tells Monty that he must come to family court to take custody of his girls and he demurs (too much work at the garage), she tells him what's really going on. "I have lung cancer, Monty. I been hangin' on for the girls as long as I could, but I'm dyin.' I'm dyin'!" He tells her things will be all right, and she says they won't. As she does, the camera pans down for a solemn shot of the prescription pills and the ashtray full of cigarette butts on her kitchen table. There's a fade out, then a pan up for a glimpse of her casket.

Perry carves up the rest of the running time to give us horror scenes of the girls with their mother and scenes of Julia going on some embarrassing blind dates and of her mixed up in one testy disagreement after the next, either with Monty or her girlfriends, who are played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Terri J. Vaughn, both of whom are underused.

All the conflicts in this movie spring from snap judgments, and no one seems to want to listen or communicate when it counts. That seems especially improbable since Union and Elba (the English actor who played the suave kingpin Stringer Bell on "The Wire"), are such expressive, extremely thoughtful performers. They have chemistry and they have class. What they don't have is a filmmaker who knows yet how to use either to make real movie magic.

I'm rooting for him to figure it out.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movie s , go to