Tyler Perry's movies could start doubling as a churchy day spa for black celebrities. Your star lacking luster? Career on the wane? Black America generally thinking twice about you? Or do you just want a juicy movie role that honors your dignity? Call Tyler. Or rather: Pray he'll call you. (Whitney Houston, step away from the phone.) Perry's movies can be like coming in from the Hollywood cold. His previous movie, "Daddy's Little Girls," gave Gabrielle Union something slightly more to do than dangle off some actor's arm.
The large cast of his new one, a melodrama called "Why Did I Get Married?," includes one Janet Jackson. With soft authority, she plays Patty, a demurely clothed, deeply sentient, highly respected psychologist blissfully wed to Gavin (Malik Yoba). These two join three couples they've known since college for a winter vacation at a cabin in the mountains. Needless to the say, the vacation is short-lived after secrets, lies, and venereal diseases comes tumbling out into the open, and everybody spends the second half of the movie explaining, then apologizing.
The characters don't make consistent sense. How a few of these marriages ever happened in the first place is something even Perry, who plays half of one couple, would have a hard time explaining. But he makes it easy on us, mostly by letting his cast do what it wants. I don't know whether Tasha Smith is any kind of actress, but she has a comic ferocity that leaps off the screen. The fun of a Tyler Perry movie is watching it with a fully engaged audience (when it comes to him is there any other kind?), and the audience cracks up whenever Smith talks. Her character, an emasculating bigmouth with an upscale beauty salon, is not a woman of psychological realism. But damn if she doesn't keep it real. Perry has used her before - she was the mommy from hell in "Daddy's Little Girls" - and she keeps his movie close to Perry's stage roots, back in Atlanta when he was a playwright and had his own theater company.
Richard T. Jones plays the demoralizing husband of meek, overweight Shelia (Jill Scott), and you don't often see evil portrayed with such chumminess. He almost makes you forgive the other men in the movie for staying friends with him.
The most disappointing thing here, besides Perry's ongoing visual impairment (he deserves better cinematography and editing) is Scott. It takes the singer an aggravatingly long time to display the keenness and spark that she does in her singing and at her live shows. She's supposed to be playing a prim woman too insecure to see she's in an abusive marriage. But Perry has trapped her there. The fat jokes hurt us more than they appear to hurt her. As the fourth one rolls off her back, all we can say in exasperation is, "Oh Sheila!"