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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There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.
Last we heard in last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea (Tyler Perry) was solving social cultural and familial problems. What a busy lady! Well she’s done gone and done it again after a whole new crop of problems pop up that need fixing. This time the conflicts revolve primarily around two sisters Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) both of whom are wary of their financial-minded mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa is deathly afraid to love again after her husband left her and two kids and fears she might’ve met Mr. Right in the form of a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). Meanwhile Lisa is in a physically abusive relationship with Carlos (Blair Underwood) “Atlanta’s most eligible bachelor ” but is afraid to leave him. Madea the antithesis of gold-digging Victoria solves these and many more problems as the family reunion nears. After Mad Black Woman’s surprise box office take last year bigger names were less reluctant to sign on. Accordingly the new actors in Reunion are very solid—borderline stellar collectively. The lone exception is Perry as Madea (as well as a few other characters) whose over-the-topness although expected reduces the air of professionalism from the rest. Underwood is so damn good at being so damn bad as the abusive fiancée Carlos while Whitfield matches him chill for chill in a very icy performance. The relative unknowns/newcomers are the most pleasant surprises however. Aytes has breathtaking beauty that would normally overshadow acting but not here. Anderson whose last film was ‘95’s Clockers is equally beautiful and evocative as a single mother torn. And for the female eyes there’s Kodjoe whom girls will likely fall for even more when they learn he can actually act. Perry wears many hats in Family Reunion: writer director producer star--and oh yeah he also wrote the popular stage production from which the film is adapted. Perhaps Perry’s workaholic attitude contributes to the film’s thematic overkill. There are a number of kinks in the film’s completely uneven story and the way it is told but perhaps the biggest problem stems from the fact that it still feels like a stage play. Sometimes that’s a plus for a film but it’s hard to think it was intended. This feeling is elicited by the sum of the story’s parts. Perry will be in one scene telling the tale of a beleaguered battered woman amid a linear and conventional storyline and in the next scene become Madea in her cartoonish and campy getup dishing out her tough love techniques. No doubt Reunion is an enjoyable play--only if you agree with Perry’s comedic remedies for serious issues.
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.