A husband in another director’s movie would say to his wife, “There are pancakes on the table, baby” and give her a loving look. In a Perry movie he’d say, “There are pancakes on the table, baby. I put butter on them. Syrup, too. The plates they’re on are from Restoration Hardware. That’s also where I bought the table. The flatware I don’t know about. Anyway, I made the pancakes and buttered and syruped them and spent all that money at Restoration Hardware because I love you so much.”
Maybe that’s why Perry casts such attractive-looking actors. This goes beyond Hollywood’s love of good looks. Just as Tarantino needs to cast a certain kind of verbally dexterous actor, Perry needs gorgeous young leads — like Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Lance Gross, and Robbie Jones, in his latest, “Tyler Perry’s Temptation,” which opened last month — to compensate moviegoers’ eyes for what their ears are having to process.
The one time the woodenness goes away is when Perry’s characters, as Jesse Jackson once put it in a very different context, talk black talk. The flavor and texture otherwise missing in his dialogue show up and take over. There’s a moment in “Tyler Perry’s Temptation” that epitomizes this. Vanessa Williams drops her phony French accent and calls Smollett-Bell a certain canine vulgarism with such gusto and oral body English that the rudeness becomes a form of release — for the audience as well as her character. Or there’s Perry’s exaggerated delivery in the several movies where he plays his recurring female character, Madea. The comedy owes a lot less to what she says than how she says it.
Perry doesn’t have to write in such a flat, talky fashion. He chooses to. His dialogue draws on the example of television drama and the “well-made play” (“well-made” being a euphemism for “over-explained”). Even in his comedies, Perry seeks to provide moral lessons: about the cost of putting on airs, forgetting one’s roots, ignoring the power of religion. Dialogue in his movies has the importance of the homily in a church service — but also, alas, all the wit and polish and surprise.
Tarantino’s words reach back to screwball comedy. The way his dialogue can teeter between delight and delirium is pure Preston Sturges — not that Sturges ever aspired to association with purity of any sort. That was part of his genius. Part of Tarantino’s problem isn’t that he shrinks from purity, but that he so eagerly embraces impurity.
In his heart of hearts, one suspects, Perry wants to update “A Raisin in the Sun” (which is well beyond the category of well-made play). In his last two movies, Tarantino has wanted to make revisionist history that’s as much Roger Corman as Howard Zinn. What he was born to do is something different: update screwball comedy. The Coen brothers showed it’s doable, with “Intolerable Cruelty.” Think of how much better Tarantino could do it, though, with his mastery of crazed plotting and bank-shot banter. Best of all, he could find a place in the cast for Perry. Were those conversational worlds to collide, talk in the movies might never be the same.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.