Now Playing: Henson and Blige shine in Perry’s ‘I Can Do Bad’

25 Sep

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I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009) PG-13. 114 min. Directed by: Tyler Perry Written by: Tyler Perry Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Adam Rodriguez, Mary J. Blige, Gladys Knight 

cinemagrade b-If you can say nothing else about Tyler Perry, you must concede that he truly understands his audience. With the broken/spurned women, the good guys and bad,and the loud, broad (in every sense of the word) Madea, Perry is aiming his films at a specific niche and community. He mixes a raucous, almost vaudeville-worthy sense of humor with sincere messages of hope and faith. In the past, those elements have strained against each other. Now, in ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’ Perry pulls a neat hat-trick; he makes a film tailored perfectly to his fanbase while finally delivering something that can cross over to the mainstream.

  I admit I was skeptical upon entering the theater, mostly because I wasn’t so keen on Perry’s most popular creation, Madea. Played by Perry himself, this rough-edged, sharp-tongued  linebacker of a woman is pitched at a level more appropriate for The Nutty Professor than Perry’s stories of redemption and renewal. Madea is Perry’s nod to the Shakespearean style of ‘playing to the cheap seats.’ No more than a side player in this particular film, she serves the same function that some of the Bard’s more colorful and lurid characters held; she’s the entry point for the audience. All of  Perry’s most ridiculous lines and playful fun-poking come courtesy of her constantly-running mouth. And while there’s an odd disconnect in the tale when it wants to play child abuse for real pathos in one scene and then switch to Madea telling the children she will ‘shank them’ or ‘choke them out’, Perry is counting on his audience to know the difference. I was pleasantly surprised to note that although she still feels awkward, Perry uses Madea sparingly and effectively. A scene where she introduces Spielberg’s Jaws into the biblical story of Peter and Jesus walking on water is almost brilliant in its observation.

With Madea, and her crochety brother Joe forming the story’s frame, Perry turns the spotlight on a band of characters who are almost Dickensian in their construction. First up are Hope Olaide Wilson, Kwesi Boakye and Frederick Siglarelies as a trio of motherless children who break into Madea’s home and attempt to steal her vcr, prompting her to contact their guardians. When she learns they haven’t seen their grandmother in days, the surly woman takes them to their aunt, April, played by the lovely and extremely talented Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

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April is a down and out alcoholic who is sleeping with an ill-tempered married man and can’t find much reason to rouse herself before noon every day.  She had little use for her sister, hasn’t spoken to her mother and wants nothing to do with the unfortunate tykes. Since this is a Tyler Perry movie,we have confidence–or is it faith?–that she will change. When a single, long-haired carpenter(Adam Rodriguez) shows up courtesy of the church (no really, he’s a carpenter!) you can feel certain you’ve met April’s catalyst.

Henson carries almost the entire movie with her focused and complex portrayal of April. As written, the character only has a few notes to play, but in the hands of this gifted actress she evolves into a full blown choir of emotional upheaval and bitter regret. Although this role couldn’t be more different than the warm-hearted and maternal woman she portrayed in Benjamin Button, Henson gives both characters the same intensity and conviction. Whether weeping for her mother or her own lost childhood, she takes the film’s themes and crystalizes them into something that is actually touching. 

Backing up Henson are three more players who prove integral to the success of the picture, albeit in different ways. Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige and gospel singer Marvin Winans play, more or less, the good samaritans of the film who serve the story by helping when they can and serve the movie by singing every chance they get. Some have complained that the numerous musical interludes, many taking place in Winan’s church, slow the film down or stop it in its tracks. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Blige, in particular, delivers some rousing numbers, including the titular song, and a Gladys Knight ditty is welcome in any film. In fact, the musical element helps marry the very specific material to the more universal storyline, and before long it’s ushering the newcomer in with a big, sweaty hand on the back, right on up to the front row, joyfully proclaiming its message all the way. 

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I Can Do Bad All By Myself isn’t a perfect movie; it’s too predictable, sometimes muddled in its message, and the comedy still doesn’t quite jive with the rest. But it is a good film and its strongest quality is that it is sincere. The tagline is ‘hope is closer than you think.’  Despite its latent hokiness, the movie believes this and so does Perry. He envisions a world that isn’t without sorrows dangers or difficulty, but one that can also turn on hope and be nurtured by love, kindness and charity.

The character I was left thinking about the most is absent for almost all of the picture, save for a single wordless scene. She was April’s mother and grandmother/guardian to the three children. For her troubles she dies quietly and without acknowledgment on a bus seat while riding to work to help care for her charges. Like her many real-world counterparts, she is a strong, dedicated woman who keeps giving because she sees a need and knows she still has something left to give. I Can Do Bad  plays like an understated tribute to her, and all those she represents. In some ways, she is there staring out in every frame of the film.

See I Can Do Bad All By Myself locally at The Senator or go HERE for other area theaters.

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