Thursday, March 03, 2005

REVIEW: Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Blah blah blah mild spoilers blah blah read at your own risk blah blah...

In case you didn't hear, this currently "the number one movie in America," a grandiose statement that boils down to: "It was the only new comedy in America, and everyone already saw 'Hitch." So some of you who were either not planning on seeing this or, more likely, were not even aware this existed, might now feel compelled to see it. Well, I just saw it and I have one immediate reaction to share with you:


Followed, naturally, by a more wordy followup to my initial immediate reaction:

...What the HELL did I just watch!?

To imagine how profoundly "WTF!?"-inducing "Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman" is, I first ask you to imagine a hypothetical movie: Imagine, if you will, comedian Mike Meyers writes and agrees to co-star in a serious, issues-oriented drama. His film is about a young woman dealing with heartbreak, and is full of scenes of wrenching, important material. I'm talking marital problems. Spousal abuse. Endangerment and betrayal. Drug-addiction. Families torn apart, the whole deal. At about midpoint through the movie, Meyers' young heroine (played, of course, by a talented up-and-coming ingenue) decides she needs some help with her problems. So she heads out to find her friends, knocks on their door and out steps... into a previously totally-seriously melodrama, remember... Mike Meyers. As Austin Powers.

Can you imagine how inane that would be? How instantly and immediately wrongheaded it would feel? How mind-bogglingly dopey it would be? Well, that's pretty much what happens in this movie.

Tyler Perry is a playwright, one of those hugely-successful Black cultural-phenomenons with legions of fans and hugely-profitable personal empires that 99% of white people have never, ever heard of. His shows, (I'm told), big hits on the Christian theater-circuit, are a fusion of sitcom-broad humor, self-performed characters, Gospel music and old-time homespun life advice. His most popular character is Madea, (as in "My Dear" with a Southern accent,) a large-and-in-charge black grandma caricature who packs a gun, cusses a blue streak and espouses angry philosophy of rage, retribution and responsibility. As is so often the case, this character is played by a male comic in drag, Perry himself in this case. Madea is Perry's cash-cow character, and he's already parlayed her into a couple of made-for-video movies and tries to work her into as many of his projects as possible. "Diary," which began as another stage-show, is the latest of these.

If you can believe it, what we have here is a Christian-Gospel-Black-Feminist-Revenge-Redemption-Cautionary-Comey-Romance-Courtroom-Crime-Drama, starring Kimberly Elise (of T.D. Jakes "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" which Perry co-wrote) as a rich black woman who finds herself thrown out of her home by her lout of a husband after 18 years. Destitute (she'd signed a prenup) she reluctantly heads back to her poor-neighborhood roots for support from her family, which turns out to include Perry-as-Madea as a grandmother, Perry-as-and-old-man as an Uncle, and Perry-as-himself as a brother-in-law with his own problems (wife has become strung-out heroin junkie roaming the town) and assorted hangers-on for large party scenes. Egged-on by Madea, she's encouraged to "empower" herself by trashing her former husbands house, getting a real job, reconnecting with her working-class roots, getting more Jesus in her life and finding love with a Bible-quoting, impossibly-noble steelworker (Shermare Moore.)

To put it mildly, the film is a colossal mess. It careens from soap-opera melodrama in it's opening scenes to slapsticky drag-show comedy once Madea shows up to drippy romance with Moore... and since that's not enough we get courtroom crime-drama with ex-hubby lawyer defending a street hood from his past, a drug-tripping scene, several barbeques, a subplot where a main character becomes caretaker to another character who had wronged them after they are paralyzed and a launches into a Takeshi Miike-like torture sequence (seriously) and, somehow more improbably than anything else, the arrival of the Elise's character's mother who spouts Biblical wisdom that is somehow meant to turn the whole grab-bag of scenes and styles into some kind of Christian parable.

What's especially troubling here is that so much of this actually works. In peices. The jacked-up melodrama of Elise's scenes with the husband character, full of screeching and shouting a declarative gesture, play as deftly-replicated soap opera hyperbole. Perry's comic talent is without question, and Madea is a great achievement of character-creation (if, it must be said, not so great an achievement of makeup.) The cutsie-poo romance stuff works here and there, as do the requisite "large extended family barbeque" scenes. Even the blunt Evangelical-moralizing, though it's the precise-opposite of my cup of tea, is sincere and heartfelt. It just does not add up.

Only one of the disjointed story-threads really works, and tellingly it's the one most removed from the rest of of the film: Perry's third character, the brother-in-law, is raising two kids on his own after his wife turned into the town junkie. Strung-out on an unidentified narcotic (Heroin is most-strongly implied,) she was once an aspiring singer but now wanders the town and only appears occasionally late at night to beg her husband for money and food. He wants to help, but she resists, and it's taking it's toll on the children as yhe daughter has inherited her mother's vocal talent, but dad forbids her joining the church choir because music had led her mother to drugs. There are real, honest, heartbreaking scenes here: The mother showing up at night with another vauge promise to "change," a renunion between Elise's character and her strung-out sister, and an extraordinary sequence where the daughter sees her mother on the steps of the local drug-house and orders dad to stop the car so she can say hello. These scenes speak volumes about the world Perry's characters and stories are coming from, and he gives his own best performance amidst his own best writing. A whole stand-alone film could have been made from this subplot, and it would've been a hundred times better than the one it instead occupies.

This sort of tone-jumping and genre-mixing can work in the heightened-reality of live theater, but on film there needs to be something to join the disparate elements together which is simply missing from this movie. Madea does not fit in the rest of the film taking place outside her home, and likewise elements from the rest of the film do not work when they seep into Madea's world. Elise doesn't just change clothes as she moves between her rich/poor self, she changes her whole performance, twisting from a yowling harpy to a broken angel and back again and never once convincing the audience that there is a plausible logic for the switch. This kind of filmmaking-by-blender requires MASTERS of directorial and writing control at the helm, and while Perry's effort is admirable his results are less so. This isn't like "Kill Bill," where Quentin Tarantino was able to merge kung-fu, samurai, western, sleaze, crime, melodrama, horror and comedy staples and iconography into a solid narrative existing in a "world" of it's own; there's no sense that any of this is happening for any reason other than "thats what comes next in Mr. Perry's script."

I expect to be told, as Roger Ebert was for his negative review of the film, that I don't get or am incapable of getting the film because I am white, and the film is "made for a Black audience." Frankly, I find that to be slightly offensive and short-sighted: This film was not made for "a black audience," it was made for "an audience of existing Tyler Perry fans," who already know the rythyms and the gags and may even be ACHING for Madea to waddle onto the scene. I have a respect for the Black Evangelical religious community in this country, in as much as it's leaders (like T.D. Jakes) seem to see their Christian ideology as something designed to help people with their problems instead of the "do it because the book SAYS SO!" version of Christianity espoused by most of the media-prominent white evangelical leaders. If this community is Perry's "niche," then more power to him; but in the same spirit I'm afraid my verdict on the film must be that it's unlikely to win any new converts since it spends most of it's time preaching (literally) to the choir.


P.S. Here's Ebert defending his review from what was apparently a great outpourring of angry disagreement. A good read:

And HERE is some of the actual angry disagreement, which it must be said got INCREDIBLY ugly. Roger Ebert can be called a great many things, and not all of them flattering, but a racist he is most definately not:

Disagree with me? Agree? Cool. Hit the "comments" button and let's talk about it.