For the first eight to 10 minutes of Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself I sat in shocked wonder. It appeared that Perry had at last made a good, cinematic movie. The photography was excellent, the setup was smooth and entertaining, the editing was sharp and on the money. The premise and tone of the movie were established with an economy that was pure joy. Unfortunately, the plot set in at this point and we were right back where we’ve always been with Perry: a slab of low-brow comedy, a chunk of hoary melodrama, and good actors (Taraji P. Henson deserves better than this) wasted on an inane story that lurches around for nearly two hours before concluding that all its heroine needed all along was a good (and hunky) man and Jesus.
It’s tired, it’s trite, and it’s predictable. It’s also, apparently, just what Perry’s fans want, and he doles it out faithfully. And, since Perry is nothing if not a canny businessman, he knows to open his movies on weekends where there’s no real competition, so he can claim another number one on opening weekend. This may look good, even if it’s dealt from a stacked deck, but it means a lot less than one might think. Of course, with an approximate budget of $13 million (Perry is also nothing if not frugal), it’s an assured moneymaker regardless. Expecting Perry to radically alter his approach is purely wishful thinking. That’s too bad, because he has the talent to do more than this.
The story this round finds three children—Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson), Byron (Frederick Siglar) and Manny (TV actor Kwesi Boakye)—whose caretaker grandmother has been missing for several days. The kids break into Madea’s (Perry) house to find Madea and her brother Joe (Perry), with predictable results. It turns out that these kids have the weight of the Perry world on their shoulders. Their late mother was a crackhead, Byron has asthma and diabetes, Manny isn’t all there, Grandma is missing, and their fast-living Aunt April (Taraji P. Henson) doesn’t want them. Of course, being that Madea is an unstoppable force of nature, April ends up with them anyhow. Somehow she also ends up with hunky Colombian immigrant Sandino (Adam Rodriguez, TV’s CSI: Miami) living with her, thanks to the machinations of Pastor Brian (Marvin Winans, TV’s Tyler Perry’s House of Payne). None of this sits well with April’s weasel-of-a-married-man boyfriend Randy (Brian White, Fighting).
Surely you know where all this is going—and it’ll get there with rich and steamy melodrama. Subtlety not being a Perry virtue, some of this becomes risible. When Pastor Brian and his friend Wilma (Gladys Knight) come to break the news of what happened to April’s mother, they tactfully bring the old gal’s ashes with them. This, however, is nothing compared to the CD player in the bathtub scene (this movie’s equivalent to Perry’s boiling grits in the face from his 2006 opus Madea’s Family Reunion). Numerous touches—my own favorite being Sandino’s claims of having been forced to pick coca leaves by the drug cartels when he was 7 years old—are in the same abundantly dramatic mode.
But there are other aspects to the movie. I don’t find Madea funny as a rule, but her mangled Bible story about Meshach, Shadrach “and a billy goat” was an exception to that rule. Then, too, the film—which is technically a musical (using the rule of thumb of four songs or more)—boasts at least one dynamite musical number when Mary J. Blige performs the title song. It’s not just that the song is good and she’s terrific, but it’s intelligently presented and intercut with the plot so that—unlike with several of the other songs—the movie doesn’t just stop dead. It’s yet another flicker of the filmmaker Perry could be. (Somewhat amusingly, Perry’s also discovered the jump cut in this movie, but the less said about that the better. Godard, he ain’t.)
Other aspects of the film’s musical bent are less happy. Gladys Knight gets dragged in for a largely superfluous song and as part of a supposedly pivotal gospel-singing sequence. The second of these wouldn’t have been bad, but it goes on and on and on to a point where my mind had long started to wander. (A friend of mine made the case that that’s just like real church, but I doubt that was the idea.) So does the movie, for that matter, which doesn’t seem to know when to stop. (Several people walked out during the climactic musical number at the screening I attended.)
In the end, I Can Do Bad All by Myself is just another Tyler Perry movie—a little better than most in bits and pieces, but overall just more of the same. That means it’s going to delight his fan base and leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving a sexual assault on a minor, violence, drug references and smoking.