I Can Do Bad shows the Tyler Perry empire can do good 

Playwright, director, producer and actor Tyler Perry introduced Mabel "Madea" Simmons, the chain-smoking, tough-talking, pistol-packing woman with a heart of gold and immense religious faith, more than 10 years ago in a play called I Can Do Bad All by Myself. The movie version of I Can Do Bad has different characters and puts Madea more in the background—which is no easy feat, since Madea (Perry in a fat suit and dress) tends to stand out like a bugle in a string quartet. But the changes are only superficial.

I Can Do Bad All by Myself revisits the formula that has earned Perry more than $400 million over seven films (along with 10 stage plays, two television shows, a best-selling novel and a host of top-selling DVDs). He's become the most powerful black filmmaker in Hollywood by making essentially the same movie over and over, in most cases using material he'd road-tested for many years before church groups. Perry writes, directs and produces his works, retaining creative and fiscal control, and he makes no apologies for the lack of variety in settings, characters and message.

Perry's critics (many of whom weigh in on NPR or websites like The Daily Voice, The Root and The Black Commentator) lambast the predictability of his scripts and his simplistic directing and cinematography. But what really draws their ire is Madea—a head-bobbing, finger-pointing vaudeville act in the mold of LaWanda Page's Aunt Esther. With Madea as Exhibit A, they've pegged Perry as the latest in an array of profiteers dating back to the minstrel and Jim Crow eras who exploit black audiences' hunger to see themselves on screen—and their willingness to excuse one-dimensional portraits that reaffirm widely held stereotypes.

True, Perry's films continually walk the fine line between character and caricature, between inspiring chronicle and cliché-filled soap opera. His worst productions (particularly Meet The Browns) dissolve into indefensible sitcom pandering.

But I Can Do Bad All by Myself showcases his strengths and quirks of creative personality—especially his willingness to mash up unrestrained extremes of melodrama, problem play and slapstick—better than any movie since his 2005 debut Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

An unabashedly religious musical comedy-drama, I Can Do Bad celebrates not just the gospel but his gospel: that the black church is the bedrock of salvation and resilience, that success is attainable for all who return to the fold. Perhaps Perry's greatest asset has been providing juicy, unusually varied roles for top-flight black actresses—first Kimberly Elise in Diary, and now Taraji P. Henson as April, a cynical, hard-drinking nightclub vocalist who's content to remain in a loveless affair with a married, kid-hating creep (Brian J. White). She's the only living relative of three children, whom she neglects to keep peace with her shady boyfriend.

The misguided, lonely kids break into a house looking for food. Unfortunately for them, it's Madea's. She not only demands they work off the damage, but insists on taking them to their aunt April. From there, anyone who's ever seen a Perry film knows what's coming: some crowd-pleasing tough love from Madea upside the head, undiluted straight-to-the-camera sermonizing, and life-altering events that force April to rediscover her latent spirituality and decency. The movie also contains another Perry staple, the hard-working regular Joe (here CSI: Miami's Adam Rodriguez) whose efforts are repeatedly distrusted and ignored until situations force the reluctant woman to accept his help and love.

By now Perry's drag act is getting a little long in the muumuu. Here, though, he wisely uses Madea in limited doses and moves the fine Henson to the forefront, giving her the kind of no-holds-barred diva trip once reserved for the likes of Joan Crawford. Perry also gets better-than-expected performances from his young regulars, especially young Hope Olaide Wilson as the kids' protective big sister, who shifts convincingly from rebellious teen to affection-starved child. And not only does Perry spice the mix with roof-raising musical contributions from guest stars Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, he manages to use the camera as something more than the mute witness to a stage show.

None of this will please those who've already made up their minds about Perry. But to a formerly homeless high-school dropout (he later earned his GED) who once slept in his car, the attacks of academics and naysayers of any color mean nothing. The people who fill pews in black churches and reside in communities like North Nashville mostly adore Tyler Perry's films, Madea and all. That audience made I Can Do Bad All by Myself number one at the box office its opening week, delivering nearly twice its $13 million budget. And if that's not enough for Perry, he should know that there's a term for a filmmaker who remakes the same movie long enough: an auteur.

Email rwynn@nashvillecitypaper.com

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