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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Tragedy strikes the Marshall University community when a plane crash claims the lives of most of the football team coaches and some fans. With the whole town traumatized university president Donald Dedmond (David Strathairn) thinks it's best to cancel the football program but remaining players led by Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) rally the school to support continuing the team's honor. Of course nobody wants to coach in these circumstances--that is until rogue bad boy Jake Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) asks for the job. Along with surviving assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox) they build the team back up. Just putting the team back together raises the town's spirits but getting back the winning record is another story. This could have easily been a sappy tearjerker but it sticks to the high road for the most part. There are some sad scenes (i.e. the cheerleader [Kate Mara] returning the engagement ring her dead boyfriend gave her to his mourning daddy) but otherwise the focus is on moving ahead. Just about every actor gets at least one big moment to cry. That's a given in a story of this nature and some of them are better than others. Mackie's stoic attempt to take punches in an injured shoulder is full of passion but Fox's random breakdown is well just like a flashback from Lost. He is better on the field showing us a side to his personality we haven’t seen yet. Strathairn seems the most sympathetic as the pained authority figure making tough decisions. Mara (Brokeback Mountain) looks so innocent you just want to hold her hand and stroke her hair every time she wells up. Aside from that there's also a lot of personality in the film. McConaughey leads the team with a gleam in his eye and a smirk on his lips but it never comes across as insensitive. He’s hip so of course he's the one who can lead them out of tragedy. And as an ensemble film the cast comes together as a community in which a single tragedy can affect them all and a single victory can give them hope. McG totally restrains his bombastic Charlie's Angels style of filmmaking for this character piece. Just about the only noticeably fancy shot is a dissolve from Mara looking up at the plane to her boyfriend staring out the airplane window. It's a moving moment because we know what is coming and it does not call too much attention to the filmmaking process. McG knows how to do some great montages too. Recruiting the new players running the drills--they're all full of visual moments set to a rocking soundtrack. Most importantly he handles the tragedy with class and doesn’t deliberately try to jerk tears. The plane crashes with only a single jump and a fade to black but the wreckage burns through our hearts. Instead McG shows there's a way to honor the dead to take back a community's pride and let life go on without disrespecting any of the departed. The football games in We Are Marshall are filmed with visceral impacts pretty much the way most sports movies are. There's no Friday Night Lights grit but that's fine. These games are about telling a story not exposing the seedy underbelly of the sport.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) thought she had the perfect life with lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris): a big house lots of creature comforts and a stable--albeit staid--marriage. But Helen's world shatters when Charles tells her on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary that he wants a divorce and literally kicks her out of their spacious mansion to make room for another woman. Devastated she runs to her beloved pot-smokin' gun-totin' grandmother Madea (Tyler Perry) who lets Helen know she's a proud beautiful black woman who nonetheless should whoop the bastard's ass. As hurt as she is Helen really just wants to pick up the pieces and move on if she can. She finds guidance and empowerment from her family and friends including new friend Orlando (Shemar Moore) a drop-dead gorgeous construction worker whose sweet and sincere ways more than help Helen get through her pain. And he cooks too. Really there's no contest.
The main cast members aptly portray their roles formulaic as they are. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) as the grievously wronged wife has the toughest job trying to convey all the crazy mixed-up feelings Helen has for the ex-husband while trying to jumpstart her life. Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) as the callous husband and Shemar Moore (TV's The Young and the Restless) as the too-good-to-be-true suitor represent the two opposites sides of the coin. Even Cicely Tyson makes an appearance as Helen's invalid mother who seems just a little too healthy to be in a nursing home. But it's Tyler Perry who turns out to be the true mad black woman. The film comes alive when he's onscreen either playing the outrageous Madea--complete with wig makeup and padding--or Madea's brother Joe a lecherous old coot. Perry even gets to play it straight as Helen's kindly cousin Brian who has a junkie for a wife (played by Tamara Taylor with the usual vacant twitchy neediness). It would have been a long hour and a half without him.
Perry obviously writes from the heart having struggled through his younger years to become a well-known playwright. And with music video director Darren R. Grant at the helm Diary of a Mad Black Woman has all the best intentions. It's certainly a buoyant portrait of African-American life and culture that also speaks to anyone who has had to grapple with betrayal and hurt at the hands of those they love. But the stage-trained Perry somehow misses the subtleties of writing for film. Diary doesn't know what kind of genre it wants to be jumping from raucous comedy á la Big Momma's House to mind-numbing drama á la Waiting to Exhale. The characters don't have any complexities and are drawn very black or white. It also takes an awfully long time for our heroine to figure out what direction she's going to take when we could tell her in the first 30 minutes as to whom she should end up with. In the meantime we must endure several melodramatic set pieces filled with elaborate speeches about revenge love relationships redemption religion and all that which are meant to hit us hard with their poignancy. Perry might consider keeping the highfalutin writing for the stage and think about an acting career in film.