Good Deeds, demonstrates that the filmmaker continues to learn new tricks, and by "new tricks", I mean "that cameras have zoom buttons". And boy, does he use this newfound skill like a rabid animal - there aren't just zooms in Good Deeds, even just a lot of zooms: it is a film madly intoxicated with zooms, stuffing them in here and there and everywhere else. Sometimes, they make a little bit of sense; usually in the context of an establishing shot. Mostly, though, they possess in enthusiasm what they absolutely lack in skill, and throughout, nearly every mistake you could make with a zoom is presented: getting too close, getting too far, moving too fast, moving with inconsistent speed, cutting into a zoom at the wrong place, cutting out at the wrong place, starting and stopping zooms arbitrarily. In a career that has not, to date, been littered with significant visual sophistication, the crazed zooms from film student Hell might still be the most overtly incompetent element of any of Perry's films, though the degree to which he or cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski (his fourth project with the director) is at fault can of course be debated. Either way, it's amazingly bad for a nominally professional, and theoretically well-financed motion picture.
The film - which we can give the possessive title Tyler Perry's Good Deeds and thereby make it sound even more self-loving than is actually the case - finds the writer-director-producer jumping in as leading man, the first time he has ever headlined a story while not dressed as the screaming, unfunny psycho-grandma Madea; he plays Wesley Deeds DO YOU GET IT THE TITLE IS A PUN, who is the CEO of The Deeds Corporation. At one point, another character asks what the hell The Deeds Corporation even does, and when you are so self-aware of your screenplay's vacant center that you call yourself out for skimping on detail, it's time to severely re-work that screenplay. Something something computers is the answer, by the way.
Now, Wesley Deeds is a fantastically wealthy son and grandson of great men; he has no idea at all what depths the human condition can attain. One of his employees does, though: that would be Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton), who starts the movie off with just about the worst day imaginable, thrown out of her apartment on the same day that she is informed that the IRS has placed a hefty lien on her paycheck, and that her daughter's school is starting to grow impatient with what looks, from the outside, like shockingly absent parenting. Suffice it to say that Wesley and Lindsey cross paths one night when she's cleaning up in her new second job as night janitor, and the rich man makes a whole lot of realisations, chief among them that he has no idea how bad things are; and in the attempt to figure out how bad things are, he realises that his whole life, in service to his ice queen mother (Phylicia Rashad), and the pleasant fiancée (Gabrielle Union) for whom he has love but no passion, and his resentful, incompetent brother (Brian White). And so he sets himself to saving Lindsey from the depths of her poverty, a task made tricky thanks to her considerable pride, and also to give himself a personality all his own in the process.
I love Perry for trying, and Good Deeds wants so badly to have deep things to say about the state of Americans in economic collapse, but there is something wildly out of place here: the movie's twin messages are first, "Rich people, you should do good with your wealth and influence, and not just let it sit there", which is a nice and useful message albeit with a small target audience; and second, "Poor people, don't be too proud to accept help from well-intentioned rich people", which is nice and pretty much not useful in any way whatsoever, unless there has been a plague of wealthy altruists giving out nice apartments and I missed it somehow.
But odd sociopolitical ideas aside, I can't actually fault Good Deeds too badly: it's in the upper half of Perry's filmography, at any rate, both in terms of conceptual rigor and execution. Mostly. The first hour and change is relative rugged; Wesley's sad existence is painted a little too obviously, with his mother Wilimena and brother Walter being especially painted in slightly too vivid colors of the "these are awful people, whom you should hate and hate but good" spectrum, while Lindsey's plot is such a determined collection of miseries that Lillian Gish herself would have had a hard time surviving it. Even so, you can see the shape of what Perry was getting at: an ode to human durability and the ways we can help each other through the hard times, particularly these hard times of 2012. Things start to go really far off the rails in the last 40 minutes, when the love drama that the writer had been so cleverly avoiding starts to infect the characters, and the contrivances start to pile up, and it becomes obvious that Perry is utterly disinterested in letting reason and logic get in the way of a robust morality yarn - it's hard not to feel out-and-out insulted by the final scene, which violates character truths so fully that it could only be defended as self-satire.
Still, the glaring, shrill comedy is kept to an absolute minimum, and Perry's performance is about as good as anything he's yet done - not a very competitive race (till now, his only even halfway credible performance was in The Family That Preys, unless you are a fan of his work as Madea, to which I can only say: what the hell?), but he's sort of dutifully acceptable in the role, betrayed less by his talents than by his oddly chubby face, which locks him into a perpetual smirk of clammy insincerity. At least two of the performances elsewhere are genuinely pretty great; given the director's track record, it's no surprise that they're both women, Union (who is let down by an unplayable turn near the end where she ceases to play a woman and instead plays a plot object-cum-saint), and Newton, that magnificent and perpetually under-served actress making her second Perry film (she was previously one of the best things about For Colored Girls) and playing the ancient role of "Decent woman turned heartless and cold because of economic disaster" with furious strength of will, wresting everything that is real and humane and feeling and hurting about Lindsey and laying it bare. It is as fantastic a performance as the part could ever provide - which is not to say that it's one of the great performances in a Tyler Perry film, as Lindsey is an unsually under-written character given the typical love and care he gives to his women; this time around, the focus was all on Perry's own apparent alter-ego. Still, the student of Perry's cinema quickly learns to take the good where it comes, and in this case, it's is Newton's forceful performance that lifts Good Deeds from flat character drama with pretensions to social commentary, to something that at least has a life force, even if it still doesn't really work.