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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Taraji P. Henson finds God in Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
On an objective level, there are few people I admire or respect more in the movie business than Tyler Perry. Like a lot of other (white) people, I had no clue who he was when his debut film Confessions of a Mad Black Woman opened #1 at the box office in 2005. I quickly learned that he was a wildly successful playwright and a household name in African-American homes. After shocking Hollywood with the success of that picture, Perry could have done a lot of things, but what he chose to do was open his own studio in his hometown of Atlanta. It is from that base of operations that he has consistently churned out movies (about two a year) on his own terms. Perry understands his audience, knows how to deliver to them, and does whatever he wants with no apparent influence from the studios. The man is a genuine maverick, fully in control of his own ship.

He makes pretty good movies too. With an exception or two (the disappointing Why Did I Get Married? and the just so-so Madea's Family Reunion), I've really liked everything Perry has done. I think I'm enjoying his stuff more as we go along too. I Can Do Bad All By Myself is, I think, as good and as enjoyable as anything he's delivered thus far, thanks in part to a stellar lead performance from Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Henson plays April, a hard-drinking nightclub singer who fools around with married man Randy (Brian J. White). Her life changes when her late sister's three children break into the home of Perry's signature character Madea, who drops them off on her doorstep. (Her mother, who had been the kids' guardian, has mysteriously disappeared.) April wants no part of any children, as her lifestyle is too selfish to think of anyone else. Her home becomes even more full when a local pastor (Marvin Winans) talks her into providing room and board to Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a down-on-his-luck handyman. As hard as April tries to continue doing her own thing, the mere presence of other people in her life causes her to slowly re-evaluate herself and consider getting back in touch with the church.

Tyler Perry's movies are a unique mix of broad comedy, unapologetic melodrama, and unsubtle religious messages. The formula is always more or less the same: characters deal with traumatic life events, then find transformation by reaching out to Jesus. Often times Madea shows up to chainsaw a couch or offer backwards pieces of wisdom. It's the kind of thing you either go with or you do not. I've responded positively to Perry's body of work for one simple reason: it's completely free of cynicism. The man is genuinely interesting in showing how adversity can be overcome, in part, through faith in a higher power. In this case, as in most of them, Perry stacks the deck. Randy isn't just an infidel, but also a potential abuser. Sandino isn't just a good guy, he's virtually a saint. And let's not forget the scene where April can hear gospel music reverberating from the church down the street; she stands in her kitchen singing along and has a religious conversion right before our eyes.

If his stories beat you over the head with a message (and believe me, they do), that is because they are intentionally the cinematic equivalent of a great preacher enthusiastically spreading the Word of God from his pulpit. The humor reminds us that a good laugh and a positive spirit are also helpful. I'll be the first to admit that I am both cynical and hopeful at the same time. I relish a good, gleefully nasty movie, yet also appreciate something that is life- or faith-affirming. That's the side of me that digs Perry.

Having said that, a lot of other things make I Can Do Bad All By Myself a good watch. Taraji P. Henson again proves to be one of the best, most consistently engaging actresses working today. She imbues April with a good center underneath all her problems. This is crucial because, without it, we wouldn't care about the character. Henson does not play April as a bad person, but rather as a lost soul, needing only the motivation to live the kind of better life she secretly wants but cannot admit to herself. It's a great part for an actress (Perry writes a lot of strong parts for women) delivered with great skill.

The supporting cast is also very good. White is so loathsome as Randy that you'll actually want to hiss whenever he comes onscreen, and Rodriguez shares some nice scenes with Henson as Sandino struggles to comprehend April's aversion to his decency. The young actors who play April's niece and nephews are solid as well.

And let's not forget the man himself, who again plays the Madea. By now, Perry has become so comfortable in Madea's clothing that you forget it's obviously a young man playing an old woman. The character has less screen time here than in some of the previous movies, but every time she appears, laughs ensue.

It's worth mentioning that I Can Do Bad All By Myself is almost a musical. There are about five or six full songs in the film, each one coming at a precise moment in the plot and commenting upon April's emotional state. Gladys Knight plays a church lady who exercises a bit of influence upon April; she gets to sing a couple of times, and her voice is as golden as ever. Marvin Winans does a powerful gospel number, and Mary J. Blige plays another club singer who belts out the film's title tune in a show-stopping scene. Does the movie rely on music to move things along where more plot development could do the same thing? Absolutely, but so what? The music's great, and it really energizes everything on screen. When you're as entertained as I was here, there's nothing to complain about.

The sledgehammer approach of any Tyler Perry movie is bound to turn some people off. I've criticized other movies for blatantly beating the audience over the head with a message when a little subtlety would have been more desirable. However, after more than half a dozen Perry films, I know that's an intentional part of his formula, and I accept it. These stories are all about the messages, so if they're delivered with excess enthusiasm, so much the better. I Can Do Bad All By Myself may not be a model of tonal restraint, but it's well acted, it's funny, the music is phenomenal, and the religion is sincere. Tyler Perry's films keep getting better and more skillfully made each time, without ever sacrificing what makes his work unique. That's something worth celebrating.

( out of four)

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving a sexual assault on a minor, violence, drug references and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.

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