The passion of Tyler Perry

12marr600There he goes again. I am sure that all of you GetReligion readers were caught up in the Hollywood excitement about the release of the latest film from one of the most daring and independent (and profitable) filmmakers of these times. What? You weren't racing to the local multiplex to check out Why Did I Get Married? After all of that buildup in the mainstream press, like the screaming reviews and ads for Michael Clayton?

The Los Angeles Times seems to have been caught a bit off-guard as well:

In a competitive weekend at the box office, "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?" outsold films featuring stars George Clooney, Joaquin Phoenix and Cate Blanchett and knocked "The Rock" out of first place.

Perry, an Atlanta-based filmmaker with a growing grass-roots following, scored his third No. 1 hit in four outings as his latest release took in a surprisingly strong $21.5 million ... .

"Why Did I Get Married?" pushed Walt Disney Co.'s family comedy "The Game Plan," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, to No. 2, with $11.5 million at U.S. and Canadian theaters. Based on Perry's hit play, the PG-13 comedy drama about relationships and fidelity features a cast including Janet Jackson and the filmmaker himself.

And what was this surprise hit (trailer here) all about? This is how the folks who are pushing the film put it:

"My strong hunch is that this is the last time anybody will underestimate Tyler Perry," Lions Gate President Tom Ortenberg said. "Tyler's message of family values and personal redemption speaks very strongly to people who are not frequent moviegoers."

Oh my gosh, cue the gospel music and prepare for theocracy.

The key is that Perry is pulling in a large audience of what might be called "nontraditional filmgoers" and, thus, it is hard for the experts to predict how his work will do at the box office. Apparently, it is also hard to write about this nontraditional filmmaker and his nontraditional (or is that "traditional?") subject material. This is about all the Times can say in this news report, relying again on the studio executive to deliver the tough message.

Perry's base is rooted in black churches, although it continues to expand.

Close to 90% of ticket buyers for the new film were African American, Ortenberg said. But the percentage of nonblack ticket buyers was the highest yet for a Perry film.

Ah, there is the story. We have, in recent years, seen an ocean of ink poured out on the subject of Hollywood's attempts to reach the pew people who turned out to see The Passion of the Christ. Now, that movie pulled in large numbers of Hispanics and blacks, but everyone thought of it as a white megachurch blockbuster. The question, for me, is whether Perry is actually starting to reach an audience that can be defined more in terms of subject material than skin color.

If he does this, things could get very controversial. I mean, the other night -- trying to fall asleep in a strange time zone -- I finally saw all of Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Holy smokes (literally). That has to be the most overtly Christian movie that I have ever seen from a "mainstream" operation. In terms of its faith language, that flick makes Tender Mercies look like a Woody Allen movie. If you go to Amazon.com and look at the comments left by consumers, you can tell that something in Perry's work is getting people really turned on and really turned off (other than his strange mix of sentiment, wild humor and heavy drama), and I suspect it's the faith element.

But some people do get it, or at least can see what is going on. I mean, check out the top of Jeannette Catsoulis' New York Times review of Why Did I Get Married?:

The enormous success of Tyler Perry's 2005 feature, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," was a surprise only to white America. For years the talented Mr. Perry has been entertaining African-American audiences with his sentimental and hugely popular stage plays, using a patented blend of Christian moralizing, social melodrama and rambunctious comedy. The jokes may have been broader than the rump of his monstrous alter ego, the matriarch Madea, but his evangelical drive and sound commercial instincts have found a home among audiences hungry for a theater of the spirit.

Hint, hint. This man is a story, folks. It's a religion story.

Oh, and I loved the note at the end about the movie's rating: "'Why Did I Get Married?' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned.) Characters drink, commit adultery and generally behave like adults."

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