If you're expecting Daddy's Little Girls, the latest film from writer-director Tyler Perry, to be a broad comedy like Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Madea's Family Reunion, you're in for a big surprise. Perry doesn't get into drag and play Madea in this movie -- in fact, he doesn't appear onscreen at all (unless he had an uncredited cameo where I didn't recognize him). Don't let the brightly colored poster with the cute little girls on it fool you -- this isn't a comedy, either, but is meant to be a drama with a message. Daddy's Little Girls has its funny moments, but overall it's fairly somber from the start. Monty (Idris Elba) is a mechanic who wants to buy the auto shop where he works from soon-to-retire Willie (Louis Gossett, Jr.). His three daughters are primarily cared for by his mother-in-law, who implores him to take over custody so the girls won't fall into the hands of their neglectful mom, Jenny (Tasha Smith), who is living with the neighborhood druglord. The mother-in-law dies from lung cancer early in the film, and Jenny, who hates Monty, takes him to court to gain full custody of her kids just out of spite.

To earn money for a lawyer, Monty is forced to moonlight as a driver for the high-powered and self-centered lawyer Julia (Gabrielle Union), but she fires him after he detours a trip to handle an emergency with his kids. Meanwhile, her friends insist that Julia has to find herself a man, and so she suffers through humiliating (yet comic) blind dates in search of Mr. Right. He needs a good lawyer, she needs a good man ... you get the picture. Daddy's Little Girls never goes for the subtle when it can resort to the obvious. The "bad guys" of the movie are one-dimensional: we don't empathize with ex-wife Jenny in any way, and the film works hard to make her awful in every way. She smokes, she and her boyfriend try to make her oldest daughter sell drugs, and she laughs at the kids when they watch drug-dealing thugs beat up someone. Monty, on the other hand, is shown as almost saintly: he goes to church, he's polite and friendly with all his neighbors, and he truly loves his little girls.

Julia is the only character who wavers between good and bad, and you can tell how she's feeling by the colors of her outfits. When she's focused on career and what her colleagues think (which the movie considers bad), she wears black, and when she's feeling relaxed or receptive towards Monty (which is good), she wears white. If she's wearing both colors, she's conflicted about the situation. Julia's dating situation reflected an unpleasant attitude toward women, especially single career women. Her friends tell her that she's "taking it out on the office" because she doesn't have a man, and the movie strongly implies that a career woman will have an incomplete and unfulfilled life until she finds her man to take care of her and help her feel safe. In one scene, Monty is so mad at Julia that he tells her "Get a man, get a life," and suddenly I lost a lot of the respect the movie established for Monty earlier in the film. It's also suggested that one reason behind Jenny's nastiness is the man she's hooked up with -- the women in this movie are often defined by the men they choose. Even the little girls need a good man -- their daddy.

Perry has tried to create a movie with different layers of story -- it's not just about a good man's attempt to rescue his children from an unfit mother. He makes a strong point about neighborhoods and community, since the evil druglord of the story is still operating because everyone in the neighborhood is too scared to testify against him. The movie's opening scene is a montage of people of different ages on a city street, with children playing and men cooking dinner on the grill and women chit-chatting, showing the good aspects of a close-knit neighborhood. Later in the film, Willie stands up in a community meeting with police and politicians and tells his neighbors that the police and government have never and will never do anything to help them, and they all have to band together to help themselves. I remembered that Perry grew up in New Orleans, and wondered if this scene was meant to reflect his feelings about the poor handling of post-Katrina rebuilding by, well, by damn near everyone except the residents themselves. Perry is making the cynical point that African-American communities cannot rely on others to improve their neighborhoods and their lives, to the extent that even intentional lack of cooperation or hiding facts from authorities is acceptable for a greater good.

Daddy's Little Girls is often heavy-handed without much lighthearted comedy to provide respite. The romantic aspects reminded me a little of Crossing Delancey, in which a woman is not only deciding what she wants from a man, but whether to accept her roots and embrace her background. However, this film verges into melodrama to make its points clear -- at its heart, it's really an old-fashioned tearjerker. A tearjerker doesn't have to be subtle or innovative, it only has to draw emotion from its audience. Tyler Perry isn't trying to make you laugh this time, he's trying to make you cry; bear that in mind if you decide to give Daddy's Little Girls a chance.