15 February 2012

TYLER PERRY: I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF (2009)

There's something I want to get off my chest to start: regular readers will know that as a matter of policy, I review (or try to) every film that hits #1 at the U.S. weekend box office. This started back in in the spring of 2009, and was my response to feeling guilty that I'd ducked out of Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail, even though it seemed like something that I really ought to have an opinion on. Worse still: guilty and white. So up goes the official new blog rule, and from that moment on, no matter how much I wanted to skip a movie, I wouldn't let myself do it, and force myself to engage with the ebb and flow of film culture, and so on, everybody holds hands and love is all you need.

Sort of. In the event, since that point, I've missed eleven #1 films, of which the first, in the best sort of irony, was the very next Tyler Perry film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which opened on the auspicious date of 11 September, 2009. And now, at long last, I have carved that list of missing reviews down by one, and can feel that much less horrible about the mistakes I've made. Which is just exactly what Perry would have wanted, as it is indeed the theme of this movie (and his career, but we're dealing with one film at a time).

I Can Do Bad has the distinction of being, as of this writing, the only Perry film with a positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is at least partially for the unanswerable reason that it is his best work. Based upon one of Perry's earliest stage plays - in title only, I am assured - the film tells us of a selfish woman who does not want to have a family or any kind of responsibility; whose life, to this point, consists of being the kept woman for a thuggish married man. Then one day, her late sister's children get into a scrap, and the woman is obliged to take care of them while her mother is missing. This proves to be the first notch in her armor of self-serving isolation, and if you've been following along with this Perry retrospective, the rest pretty much writes itself: church, a good new man, uplifting realisation that it is better to be in a family than alone, Madea. Yes, Madea and Uncle Joe, Perry's two signature fat suit characters, are on hand; it's still my favorite of his movies. Let's hold onto that thought for a moment.

Nothing about what I've written suggests that I Can Do Bad is meaningful different from just about anything else in Perry's canon. And on a narrative level, it really isn't, but mostly consists of just a mash-up of ideas already present in his earlier films. There are two key differences. I shall start with the more esoteric one, which is that for the first time ever, Perry's direction doesn't automatically leap for the most obvious possible emotional registers or visual conceits; there is an honest-to-God sense of discipline and decision-making about even the loopiest conceits on display here. And yes, of course there are loopy conceits. It's still a Tyler Perry film; it's not like he forgot how to do his job. It's just that the loopiness here (which consists, primarily, of the main character remembering things or witnessing things she cannot see, in sequences that seem almost purposefully cut to be confusing) is more driven and yoked to the story than the "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" directorial style of the earlier Madea pictures. And there are still some spots of plain old bad filmmaking, such as a tilt that wobbles so much I half-expected the camera to fall over.

But on the whole, this is a more focused Perry, and as much as the gonzo, all-out Perryisms amuse me, the combination of arch melodrama with relatively tight filmmaking is certainly more effective on the level that the director presumably intended. And it's not just his visual treatment of the A-plot; even the handful of comic relief scenes with Madea or Joe (one of which opens the movie) lack the sitcom broadness of the earlier movies. Perry is less convincing as an old woman than ever - the visible wig line doesn't help - but he's far more convincing as a human being, one who feels more like a person responding to tragedy with jokes, than a psychotic whirlwind of screaming anti-comic humor knocking a drama off its balance. It's a subtle difference, maybe - if "subtle" can apply to Madea in any register - but a hugely important one.

The other difference is much more straightforward, and in line with several of Perry's other movies. Our selfish harridan-turned-matriarch is April, played by Taraji P. Henson (who had previously been one of the best things about The Family That Preys), and I am tempted to say that it is the best performance in a Tyler Perry movie. I have not, at this writing, seen Madea's Big Happy Family, so this is a dangerous prediction to make. But I'm comfortable making it anyway, because Henson is absolutely staggering and wonderful: it's one thing to be Angela Basset in Meet the Browns, or Alfre Woodard/Kathy Bates in The Family That Preys, or Idris Elba in Daddy's Little Girls, known quantities given roles that suit them, and require they do one thing - all of them do it very well, but there's a certain upper limit of complexity that Perry's reductive screenplays permit to any actor. I Can Do Bad is just as reductive, really, but Henson is given the "turn from bitch to saint" role that in other movies is fobbed off on a secondary or tertiary character, and she runs all the way out of the movie with it, and in the process gives a legitimacy to the characteristically moralistic, hectoring narrative of Christian redemption. In most Perry movies, church is spackled over the material with didactic abandon; but Henson's torn face, looking like it's about to rip in half most of the time, actually tells us the what church that touches this woman and brings her back to the light.

Though, I have to say, as far as Christianity goes: I begin to wonder if Tyler Perry is really just an elaborate piece of performance art. Beyond the obvious ways, I mean. Once again, his iconic, wise old Madea is given a chance to demonstrate how much she does not give a shit about religion, in this case in the midst of a truly endless scene where she mangles a number of Bible stories into one perplexing lesson about trusting things to turn out right, immediately on top of the most uncomfortable attempt at faking prayer ever captured on film. Never before has Madea's absolute unsuitability as a religious teacher been so sharply defined; never has Perry invited us to laugh at the forms and structures of religion so openly. And yet the movies are Christian missioning pieces. I truly don't understand it.

But back to what works: on top of Henson's excellent performance, moving through all the rough corners of the script like they weren't there at all, making her romance with a singularly ill-defined hunky Colombian (Adam Rodríguez) seem truly passionate, and best of all, selling that most unpleasant of Tyler Perry tropes, the "wronged woman comes thiiiis close to killing her damn dirty ex" scene. In this case, the comically awful Randy (Brian White) has just been thwarted in his attempt to rape April's 16-year-old niece, Jennifer (Hope Olaidè Wilson), causing April to threaten electrocution as revenge; Henson plays this scenario that has beaten one actress after another with an operatic sense of fury, ejecting sentences on word at a time like she is trying to throttle the English language to death with her throat, and generally being the most terrifying bad-ass a reed-thin woman could ever manage to be. That is how you do heightened emotions, Mr. Perry: don't go for the gut, but right for the heart, and rip it out of the viewer's chest with the sheer force of rage and awe.

On the subject of which: Henson isn't the only one reaching that level of intensity. April has a job as a nightclub singer, which provides I Can Do Bad with a rather unexpected number of musical interludes; moreover, Gladys Knight attends her church, which means Gladys Knight gets a couple of chances to show us all what she does, and that damn well out to sound impressive, because hell. It's Gladys Knight. But back to the nightclub, and April's co-worker and only friend, Tanya; Tanya is played by Mary J. Blige, who has not previously been one of my favorites, but I respect her talents well enough. Particularly after this film. For in this film, Blige gets a number that she does wonderful things with, and then later she gets another number, the film's title song, and it is a scorched-earth moment of the highest order, a going-all-the-way-to-11 performance of a hugely unsubtle song that is absolutely devastating in context, and Perry manages to frame it in a way that makes it even better. Why the hell aren't all of his films that? Mary J. Blige, screaming passion and fire as Taraji P. Henson looks like she has just been kicked in the face by a particularly angry Jesus. If Perry had ever elsewhere achieved half as much potency for a sustained four-minute stretch, I suspect that it would be a lot harder to condescend to his art and the effect it has on people; because this, people, is what inspirational cinema is supposed to look like.

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