Tyler Perry's movies are a complex mix of humor, faith, social commentary and family. I wouldn't call myself a fan, maybe more a curious observer. A fascinating personality with a voracious appetite for work, he's just down right appealing. The production values can be sloppy, the directing is almost always uninspired, the scripts lack dramatic structure, the acting sometimes appears to be off the cuff (particularly his) but the work is so sincere and likable that you just say "what the hell" and forgive all that because you have a good time while you are there and feel good when you leave. He's a smart filmmaker despite his lack of polish. He knows that good music can cover almost any fault and if the actors are having a good time, it is likely that the audience will also, erasing any doubt by using outtakes over the credits which are often funnier than the actual scenes. They provide clues as to how he just lets the camera run while they improvise and mess around with each other, creating that joyful sense of "aren't we all just having the best time." And actually, maybe we all are.
His latest film, I Can Do Bad All By Myself , is based on a stage play of the same title, which marked the original appearance of Madea, a "God fearing, gun toting, pot smoking, loud mouthed grandmother," famously played by Mr. Perry himself. She is a force unto herself, a box office juggernaut, perhaps more suited to comedy skits rather than full length films that tackle serious subjects. But maybe the old show business rule, "give 'em what they want" applies here. We have already established that we forgive Tyler Perry a lot of things. I, for one, would like to see Mr. Perry begin to trust himself, and his loyal audiences, a little more.
The core of this new film is based on a subject that the filmmaker knows way too much about, based on his recent disclosure of severe childhood abuse. Because of that personal experience, he knew exactly how to write it and present it in the film. After the first 40 minutes or so of a messy plot set-up designed to give screen time to the Madea and Joe characters, both played by Mr. Perry, the film finally finds its footing. April is a night club singer who drinks too much and is involved with a married man who pays her bills. She also happens to be the aunt of three children being cared for by her mother, from whom she is estranged, and who has gone missing. Madea deposits the kids on April's doorstep. What follows is a somewhat formulaic story of April's redemption starring a dreamy good man, Sandino, and the Lord.
But it is the way that Mr. Perry presents the sexual abuse component of the film that deserves special recognition. He really got it right and that matters. April's married lover, Randy, is controlling with the potential for violence while she is a woman who doesn't think she deserves better. April's inability to acknowledge and open her heart to the pain of her dead sister's children, only adds to their misery and sense of belonging nowhere in the world. When the church sends over Sandino, a good man in need of a place to stay, who also happens to be hunky and wonderful in every way, April can't connect with him either, even though he comes to really care about the children. She shuts everyone out and cannot overcome her own pain. Randy shows a lurid interest in her 16 year old niece, Jennifer, foreshadowing the climax to come. In the dead of night, he attacks Jennifer in the kitchen as she prepares an insulin shot for her little brother. She is saved by Sandino who rushes in right on cue and gives Randy a good beating. April demands to know what's going on and Jennifer begs her to believe that Randy tried to rape her. At first she doesn't, and sends Randy up to the bathtub to clean up. There she experiences a rage, fueled by the flashback of her own sexual abuse and a mother who would not believe that her man would do such a thing. Just as April is about to dunk a boom box into the bathtub to electrocute Randy, Sandino rushes in one more time to save the day. April remains angry, even suggesting that Sandino's interest in the children must make him a child molester also. She lets the knight in shining armor get away.
But one Sunday morning, April begins to allow herself to believe that maybe she can have a healthy relationship with Sandino, and love the children, assisted by the powerful sounds of the gospel choir from the church across the street wafting into her kitchen right on cue. She begins to sway and sing along to a song her mama taught her, almost in a trance, and finally goes to the church to begin her new life, all before the song ends. This deus ex machina, or "god from the machine" dramatic technique, utilizing the "out of the blue" resolution to a character's unsolvable dilemma, is generally considered poor form. (As a fascinating side note, Euripides was criticized for his use of the deus ex machina, perhaps most famously in the case of Medea, with an "e".) But this, too, is a forgivable sin.
If you look at Tyler Perry's very personal website, you can read about his own abuse and how turning 40 made him feel grateful for his survival and willing to tell his story. You can even read about how his aunt held a gun to his father's head when she found out how abusive he was and her husband stopped her before she pulled the trigger. When you read that, you have to resist the urge to write about how most abuse victims don't get saved the way April did in the film, and will ultimately have to save themselves. To hear Mr. Perry tell it, that savior might be God. The fact remains that the abuse piece of this story is told with honesty, integrity, accuracy and compassion. And it stands out as the truest part of the film. I hope that Mr. Perry will have enough faith to know that he doesn't always need Madea. He can be serious all by himself.