In a spot-on essay called “Tyler Perry’s Gender Problem,” critic Courtney Young maps out the plot of pretty much every film from the Atlanta-based auteur:
“Perry’s films typically follow the same timeworn narrative: a woman experiences abandonment and/or abuse at the hands of a ‘bad’ man; she takes umbrage, lashing out at those closest to her, most notably a ‘good’ man in her life; she experiences a revelatory moment of change; and she ends the film settled down with the good man who promises her a better life.”
Let it be no surprise, then, that “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” follows the Perry playbook to a T. Taraji P. Henson (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) stars as April, a hard-drinking lounge singer shacking up with an abusive married man. When her mother goes missing, she becomes the unwilling guardians of the three children of her dead sister, who had been a drug addict.
Simultaneously, Colombian immigrant Sandino (Adam Rodriguez, “CSI: Miami”) turns up at April’s neighborhood church, since its pastor (Marvin Winans) had once done mission work in his village in South America. Sandino gets a job doing handy-man work around the church, and then the pastor sends him over to April’s run-down house to exchange some much-needed home improvements for room and board.
“I Can Do Bad All By Myself” goes exactly where you think, from the evil boyfriend putting the moves on April’s niece Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) to April having a tearful — and quite literal — come-to-Jesus moment in the church.
Yes, I get that Perry is making movies for a specific audience and that he’s trafficking in specific chitlin’-circuit theater tropes. I know the melodrama is supposed to be broad and the comedy’s supposed to be low — the scenes with Perry done up in old-lady drag as Madea are once again the highlights here — and the moralizing right there on the surface. But surely someone with the clout that Perry has amassed up to this point could work that formula into better filmmaking.
The look of “I Can Do Bad” is flat, Perry still doesn’t always know where to put the camera, and he telegraphs everything shamelessly. When we learn that Jennifer’s brother Byron (Frederick Siglar) doesn’t speak, we know that he’s eventually going to talk in a scene that’s designed to jerk tears. We see that Jennifer, who projects a tough exterior to the world while being a loving caregiver to her brothers, is liable to wind up in the same cycle of abuse that made April the way she is … but then Perry has Jennifer actually say “I’m gonna wind up just like you” to April, just in case anyone came in late and missed it.
Even can’t-miss moments like songs performed by Winans, Gladys Knight (every Perry movie has a wise elder Church Lady, and she’s it this time) and Mary J. Blige (as April’s friendly bartender) are undercut by Perry’s decisions to cut away to random audience members being moved by the music.
Here’s a tip: Directors only do that when the on-screen performer isn’t that great, and the audience needs to be reminded that the people watching on screen are being moved. When Gladys Knight sings, everyone is moved. Period.
Ultimately, for all the entertaining moments and committed performances — keep an eye on Hope Olaide Wilson, an intense young actress — we wind up with another Tyler Perry movie in which a wayward woman must learn to submit to two patriarchies: the nice blue-collar guy who’s going to solve her problems, and Jesus. If that formula works for you, so will “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” but if it doesn’t, wait for cable and just watch the singing.
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