"Not a very good movie, but it has some sincerely positive ideas."
I Can Do Bad All by Myself is Tyler Perry's eighth film in 4 1/2 years, adapted from another one of his many, many stage plays. Archeologists are constantly discovering new Tyler Perry stage plays waiting for their big-screen adaptations. Hollywood could do nothing but adapt Tyler Perry stage plays for the next 20 years and still stay in business.
This latest is more of the usual Perry formula, in which screwed-up people find their way back to the straight and narrow with the help of kind souls who gently urge them in the direction of the nearest church. As usual, there is a one-dimensional villain who abuses a woman, and there is a lot of weeping and sermonizing as the woman in question learns to respect herself and to love God. Perry has wisely learned not to try to surprise his audiences.
Perry appears as Madea, his pistol-packing grandma character, and also as her pothead brother Joe, but they are minor figures in the melodrama at hand. At the center is April (Taraji P. Henson), an alcoholic nightclub singer who's financially supported by the married man she's seeing, Randy (Brian White), who hates his wife and children and doesn't care about April. (Alert: This is the one-dimensional villain I alluded to.) For good measure, he also makes inappropriate advances on a young girl and calls a Hispanic man "Mexico" instead of learning his name. He does those last two things in the same scene, suggesting an admirable efficiency in Perry's screenplay.
April's glamorous life of drinking/singing all night and sleeping all day is interrupted when her niece and two nephews are deposited on her doorstep by Madea, whose house they broke into. Their mother, April's sister, is dead, and their grandmother, who's been caring for them, disappeared four days ago. They have nowhere else to go -- well, besides the police, who might, you know, help find M.I.A. grandma -- so April's stuck with them.
Sixteen-year-old Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) has got a sassy attitude on her and still bears the emotional scars left by her awful late mother. She tends to her little brothers, Byron (Frederick Siglar), who doesn't speak and might be a little "slow," and Manny (Kwesi Boakye), who has diabetes and asthma. She and April match each other for sullen immaturity, neither of them wanting to be saddled with the other.
Into their lives comes Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a poor Colombian man who seeks work as a handyman and is referred to April's dilapidated old house by the pastor at April's former church. (In Tyler Perry movies, everyone used to go to the same church, but a lot of them don't go much anymore.) Sandino is decent and good and kind, showing great concern for April and the kids, and disdain for the evil Randy. He is also, April can hardly fail to notice, muy caliente.
Setting up all of this takes maybe a half-hour. The remaining 83 minutes are devoted to slowly -- SLOWLY -- reaching the inevitable conclusion, where lessons are learned, scoundrels are punished, and lives are lived happily ever after. Since there can be no surprise whatsoever about the conclusion, the joy should be in getting there, and that is where Perry falls short. The focus is on melodrama, not comedy (a few Madea-and-Joe-related chuckles aside), and this is all just the same old Perry routine. The sentiments about relying on your faith in God to get you through tough times, and the inherent worth of every soul, are earnestly felt -- but that's a sermon, not a night at the movies. And even for a sermon, it's glacially paced.
One slight deviation from the norm is that Perry has cast Mary J. Blige as April's fellow nightclub singer and Gladys Knight as a parishioner, and both ladies are given the opportunity to sing a couple numbers. (Taraji P. Henson sings, too, and is fantastic.) I wish the songs themselves weren't so trite -- think of the most generic inspirational pop you've heard on Christian radio -- but Blige and Knight sure sing 'em well.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself is not a very good movie, but it has some sincerely positive ideas, and those ideas almost make up for the fact that it's not a very good movie. If Perry could channel his uplifting Christian messages into a screenplay with dynamic characters, intriguing situations, and witty dialogue, he'd really have something. In the meantime, here's another oversimplified morality play. Do with it as you will.
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Eric D. Snider (website) actually can't do bad all by himself, so he'd appreciate your help.