Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Here In This Diary -- Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Our first foray into the realm of Tyler Perry is Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Perry’s breakout hit based on his play of the same name. Though the film has received considerable commercial acclaim, it has not been met so kindly by critics—Roger Ebert gave the movie one-and-a-half stars in his review, noting that it’s a fine character drama with good work from the actors involved, but Madea and all of her scenes brought the drama to a screeching halt. This review was met by several accusations of racism and intolerance; readers claimed that he was a white man who could not possibly identify with all of the elements touched on in the film, and therefore was not qualified to review the film on the basis of not “getting it.” I think these comments miss the point, though: Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a movie with some serious tone-juggling issues. It’s also a ham-fisted, poorly-written, treacley mess, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Diary starts with Helen MacCarter (Kimberly Ellis) and her husband Charles (Steve Harris) attending some dinner party in his honor. Helen’s internal monologue (the titular "Diary" portion of the movie) tells us that they’ve been married 18 years, and that they look perfect, but that things are different behind closed doors. The next day, Helen comes home to find all of her clothes in boxes and being put into a U-Haul. Charles informs her that he is divorcing her so that he can spend more time with Brenda (Lisa Marcos), his Other Woman who also had two of his kids.

Distraught and alienated from her family, Helen goes to the only person she can think of: her grandma Madea (Tyler Perry), a tough-talkin’, cantankerous lady who loves her granddaughter and doesn’t stand for Charles abandoning her. They go to Charles’ house, where they vandalize Brenda’s clothes and Madea chainsaws Charles’ furniture in half (seriously).

Remember, this is a weighty character drama.

After they get out of jail somehow, Madea has a cookout at her house (to celebrate her house arrest, no doubt), where Helen runs into Orlando, the driver of the U-Haul. Helen throws her drink in his face, but later (three minutes later, to be exact) apologizes, and stares longingly at him while he dances with other cookout attendees.

Meanwhile, we find out that Charles used to run drugs, and one of his former pushers needs legal assistance. Meanwhile meanwhile, Helen gets a job at a restaurant. One night, when she needs a ride home, who should come up to her but Orlando! He offers to take her out to a small jazz café, and the two share a small, tender moment, despite Helen’s constant accusations and mistrust of Orlando’s intentions. Slowly, but surely (as played out by a slow motion Walk On The Beach montage), Helen and Orlando grow closer, and Helen decides to let Charles have all of the property in the divorce.

Uh-oh, they hate each other almost immediately upon meeting. I wonder what's going to happen to them?

At the trial, Charles loses the case, and his former pusher shoots him while being lead to prison, leaving Charles paralyzed. Helen puts Orlando on hold, and leaves to take care of Charles during his paralysis. One night, after Charles mouths-off to her yet again (this guy's douchiness is overplayed to almost comedic effect), she decides to act out her rage on Charles for what he did to her, and, during what is surely the most effed-up scene in the film, she throws him face-down into a bathtub and does all sorts of ugly crap to him. With the help of Madea and doing some soul searching, though, Helen decides to forgive Charles, and take care of him while he recovers. Charles ends up making a full recovery thanks to Helen, but then Helen serves him the divorce papers, then runs back to Orlando, where they decide to get married.

From a one-sentence plot synopsis perspective (“Black woman learns how to be her own person in the wake of an ugly divorce”), Diary of a Mad Black Woman isn’t so bad. On an execution level, however, it’s soppy, pretentious, and as uneven as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

This is what sympathetic protagonists do, right after forgiven their wrongdoers in favor of a better man.

My biggest problem with the movie is not Madea (which surprised me greatly), but Helen. Helen begins the film as, essentially, a spoiled rich girl, living off of her husband’s considerable wealth and without any practical work experience. “You men are all alike!” she shrieks at Orlando as he drives her aimlessly around in their U-Haul, “You’re always thinking of yourselves!” Yeah Orlando! I mean, you were telling her that you needed to drop her off somewhere because you had another job you need to be at in a few hours! Willikers! There’s a point where she visits her mom in a nursing home, and her mother tells her to go out and get a job. “Oh mama,” she smiles sadly, “I can’t do that. I’m not strong like you.” What?!!!??! You can’t get a job because you’re not strong enough?!! Through all of her raging, screaming, pouting, and acting hopeless, there is very little room for sympathy with Helen.

My second-biggest problem (though it truly was a close second) is the completely off-balance tone of this movie. Bouts of heady drama and potential character development are regularly derailed by moments that play out like deleted scenes from The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, with Perry working double-time as Madea and her waaaaaacky womanizing, reefer-smoking brother Joe. Just when the viewer is grounded into the reality of the characters, Madea shoots a warning shot from her handgun into the ceiling, or pulls a chainsaw from outta bumf@$% nowhere and slices a grand piano in half.

Matter fact, my favorite portion of the movie also suffered from this problem. A secondary side-plot involves Brian (Tyler Perry, in a regular role), Madea’s nephew and representative to Helen during the divorce. Brian’s wife, Debrah (Tamara Taylor) is a junkie, and Brian struggles with how to deal with raising his children in a “proper” home and look after Debrah. It’s a neat little bit, with both actors mercifully absent of stupid dialogue, and whose deus ex machine conflict resolution is exactly 300% less satisfying than it should have been, given the buildup.

The most interesting, satisfying story in this movie has all of five minutes devoted to it.

Speaking of crappy dialogue, this one gets a paragraph by itself. Tyler Perry has gained millions of followers through his stories, but I wonder how many he gained from his awful, insipid, clichéd lines. Things like:

  • “She’s not going to get into drugs by singing.”
  • “Tell that to my heart.”

  • “Dear diary: most days I don’t want to get out of bed, but I do.”

  • “He was my fairy tale.”

  • “In a way, I thank Charles. If he hadn’t been such a terrible man to me, I wouldn’t have known what a good one feels like.”

  • “I can love you passed the pain."
Again, these aren't during any of Madea's wacky comedy bits (it almost would have helped if they were), but during crucial, dramatic scenes, spoken to pretentious, weighty string music. When the romantic tension in your love story can be bested by something like All Dogs Go to Heaven, you may have a problem on your hands.

Characterization in Diary is pretty sketchy throughout. The movie tries way too hard to make Charles unsympathetic; not only does he hit his wife, but he also left her for another woman who had his kids. And he threw her out of the house! But wait! He also used to be a drug dealer! And is just plain mean and nasty throughout the whole film! He’s a bad guy, no doubt about it! Orlando practically wears a T-shirt with the label “Knight in Shining Armor,” and is an boring and underdeveloped as you would expect from a Perfect Man (though Shemar Moore’s performance goes a long way towards actually making him seem charming and relatable).

Moore is the only one in the movie who doesn't play his character as though he were in an After School Special, though even he can't overcome the clunky dialogue.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman could have been worse, but it also could have been a hell of a lot better. It’s a shame that the movie’s intentions of making Helen a sympathetic character fall so flat, otherwise the film might have worked, if only a little. As it stands, the whole project feels like 75% Spoiled Rich Kid Grows Up story, 20% antics with Madea and the Viagra-packing Joe, and 5% actual, decent movie. For my money, eating my way through that much junk to get to so little goodness is a waste of time.

PS - Because misery loves company, here's the link to Jordyn's entry on Message in a Bottle.

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