Actor-director-mogul Tyler Perry didn’t come to preside over a vast media empire by paying much heed to the tastes of critics. His 10 feature-film releases to date – churned out over an eight-year span – have drawn mostly jeers from reviewers with his Madea comedies starring Perry in drag as a tough-talking southern matriarch singled out for special scorn. His latest effort the romantic drama Good Deeds isn’t likely to change many minds but it’s not for lack of effort from co-star Thandie Newton whose performance a struggling single mother stands out amidst the film’s otherwise crudely wrought melodrama.
Trading his Madea getup for the less-familiar guise of a leading man Perry stars as Wesley Deeds the scion of a wealthy family and whose lofty expectations have begun to wear on him. Beneath his sheen of polished affluence exists a man who draws little satisfaction from running Deeds Inc. the software giant his father built and who tires of shouldering the demands of his overbearing mother (Phylicia Rashad) the burden of his bellicose and oft-intoxicated bother (Brian White) and the monotony of his loveless engagement to his similarly well-bred fiancé Natalie (Gabrielle Union).
Trapped in a stultifying routine seemingly mapped out for him at birth Wesley longs to escape his gilded prison and trek across Africa on a Harley digging wells with his college buddies. Seriously that’s his dream: digging wells on a Harley.
Situated firmly on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum is Lindsey (Newton). Left alone to provide for her daughter after the death of her soldier husband in Iraq she has little time for fanciful visions of Harley-riding and well-digging. She’s too busy trying in vain to make ends meet as a janitor at … you guessed it: Deeds Inc. Despite her lowly status Lindsey clings fiercely to her independence which places her in stark contrast to Wesley.
Fate all but demands that Wesley and Lindsey make a match but not before their respective plights are established – and re-established – over a prolonged and laborious set-up that drowns in tedious exposition. (The majority of the dialogue in Good Deeds is devoted to affirming the obvious.) The desperate nature of Lindsey’s situation in particular is driven home with wearisome repetition in scene after scene depicting her various indignities suffered at the hands of the System. Newton an actress of impressive range and dexterity brings dignity and pathos to a role that probably asks too much of her.
A more efficient filmmaker might have trimmed a half-hour from Good Deeds’ first half without compromising its story one iota but then again that would only hasten the descent into soap-opera hysterics that marks the film’s second half.
The potential exists in Good Deeds for a thoughtful examination of class divisions within the African-American community – a topic that Perry who rose from poverty to become Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer is uniquely equipped to explore – but what we get instead is an overwrought hybrid of aristocratic melodrama and How Wesley Got His Groove Back.
An artless aesthetic and narrative inconsistencies attest to the hastiness of the film’s assembly. In one scene Natalie’s flamboyantly effeminate male friend (played inexplicably by comedian Jamie Kennedy) complains that she’s never even mentioned her fiancé let alone introduced them. Yet when he encounters Wesley in quite literally the next scene they appear as if longtime acquaintances. It’s a problem that could have been easily fixed by a quick re-shoot or two but I suspect Perry was already too preoccupied with work on The Marriage Counselor – arriving in theaters less than six months from now – to bother with them if he worried about the issue at all. And if he doesn’t care then why should we?
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Dr. Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Ruth (Sissy Spacek) are throwing a summer barbecue at which their lone prodigy Frank (Nick Stahl) is proudly showing off his summer romance. Ruth vehemently disapproves: Natalie (Marisa Tomei) is an older single mother of two who is not quite divorced from the dark abusive Richard Strout (William Mapother) whose family runs their town of Camden Maine. For Frank Natalie is someone to keep the pipes greased before he heads off to study architecture at graduate school in the fall. Maybe. Frank is thinking of getting serious with Natalie and ditching school if Natalie would have him but there's that not quite ex-husband to deal with. The not quite ex-husband ends up killing Frank (this is supposed to be a plot twist but is the only action in the first two hours of the movie) which leads to much soul searching for Matt and Ruth--the raison d'etre of the movie.
With all due respect to Spacek who's been receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for her turn it's really Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty Wilde The Patriot) who gives the most outstanding astonishing performance in this film. Matt's stilted missteps at each and every turn are so human so real you empathize with the pain he's feeling while you cringe at his every inappropriate action. An Academy win for Wilkinson seems more than merited though likely won't happen. Marisa Tomei is as good as she's ever been in the role of Frank's lover Natalie. The emotional tug-of-war in her relationship with Nick is clear on her face and the distress of never getting Ruth's approval is deafening. Spacek has a hard time claiming even the second-best performance of the film but she is compelling as Ruth the kind-hearted high school teacher who's become more closed and unforgiving than she ever imagined. You can see Spacek shutting down as her world crumbles around her. William Mapother and Nick Stahl do fine jobs with their (relatively) limited characters especially Mapother who is sufficiently creepy and desperate as Natalie's husband.
An actor turned director Todd Field wastes the fine performances in his debut film. Field seemingly likes to impart significance in the mundane moments of real life which works only sporadically. Field's direction is similar to Matt's reaction to his son's death: all of his actions seem stiff and mannered and when he does do something appropriate it's a complete accident. Worse Field leaves no room for character development only letting the characters descend further and further into despair ultimately turning the film into an art house Death Wish. (With apologies to Charles Bronson.) Given the supposed strength of the Maine proletariat it would have nice to see Matt and Ruth Fowler struggle against their evil inclinations before giving in so completely. Under Field's helming the film flounders at inopportune moments rendering the story utterly meaningless.