I have long enjoyed much of Tyler Perry’s work. Generally one of the token Caucasian press at screenings or press junkets, I have often felt Perry’s work has elevated beyond that of a stereotypical caricature African-American and successfully crossed over into every demographic with character traits relatable to every ethnicity, demographic and religion. More than anything, though, I find his characterizations more deeply rooted in Southern culture and religion, a point on which my very Southern and very religious aunt, a Tyler Perry fan, agrees. In essence, his characters and storylines have been relatable and entertaining to everyone; that is until I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF.
If nothing else, at least the title of this film is appropriate because Tyler Perry has done bad, real bad, all by himself with I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF. And I don’t mean bad in a good way. I like Tyler Perry. I generally like his characters. I like the moral messages he ultimately sends with his films. But I do NOT like this film. And this film definitely does not achieve the multi-ethnic demographic crossover for which he is so famous. If anything, Perry takes ten steps backward both with his message and characters and the quality of the film as a whole.
Sixteen year old Jennifer and her two younger brothers, Manny and Byron, haven’t had the easiest of lives. With the passing of their mother some years back, the children were left in the care of their grandmother. But, due to her advanced age and her need to work to support the children, much of the child care of Manny and Bryon fell to Jennifer and one of the biggest concerns being Manny, an insulin dependent diabetic. But what does a 16 year girl do when her grandmother doesn’t come home from work and she’s out of insulin to give her little brother? In Jennifer’s case, you break into the house of non-other than that pistol-packing jailbird grandma named Madea, and get caught while trying to steal a 20 year old VCR.
Irascible to a fault, Madea may talk a good game but at heart, she’s just that – all heart. Rather than turn the kids over to the police and given the inability to locate grandma, Madea turns the kids over to their Aunt April with the proviso that they will work off their debt and thievery by cleaning Madea’s house and learning some responsibility. Little does Madea know just how much responsibility Jennifer already carries.
But Aunt April is anything but the world’s greatest aunt. Hating kids, not wanting kids, deeming kids nothing but a pain, she makes it clear that these aren’t going to ruin her life and they will be gone as soon as grandma is found. And what of April’s life? Heavy-drinking (oh let’s just say it – drunk) nightclub singer, she steals from the club she works at, kicks homeless people down on their luck in the face, sleeps all day, smokes like a chimney, lives in a house left to her by her father that she has run into disrepair, and has her married boyfriend Randy shacking up with her and paying her bills while he has a wife and kids and another one on the way that he also “puts up with.” (And according to Randy, he ain’t taking nuthin’ from no woman.) Ah yes, Aunt April is a fine example of a human being. Selfish to a tee, she cares nothing about Manny’s medical condition which still leaves Jennifer to fend for him.
As luck would have it though, as Jennifer is caught stealing yet again, this time from the pharmacy and as she tries to escape capture, runs into none other than the Pastor Brian at the local Zion Baptist Church. Seeing a child in need and living with “Aunt April” (whose reputation precedes her), Pastor Brian sees a chance for redemption and hope – a young immigrant named Sandino who benefitted from the church’s missionary work in his country some years back. And of course, on coming to America with no papers, job or money, heading for the benevolence of the church was the only right thing to do.
Placing Sandino in April’s house to do repairs in exchange for room and board, Sandino soon finds himself falling in love with the children and April, although April shuns every kindness shown to her, opting instead to keep her money tree going with Randy. But what happens when the Pastor learns that Grandma has passed away? Will Jennifer, Manny and Byron stay with April or be placed into foster care? What will become of Sandino? And most importantly, what will happen to the wayward April?
The most spectacular part of the film, and yes, I say spectacular, is Hope Olaide Wilson. As Jennifer, she is phenomenal! Her emotional range is incredible. And when she smiles, she lights up the entire film. She has an inner strength and vulnerability that simply shines on screen. She is the singular reason to see this film. Another darling is Kwesi Boayke who, as Manny, steals every scene, including those he shares with Tyler Perry’s Madea. Despite little dialogue, he conveys emotion through his facial expression that speaks volumes and elicits laughs and love.
I really enjoy and like Adam Rodriguez. As Sandino, he brings some genuine emotion to the story and gives it a backbone and sense of hope and pride that the other adult characters lack. I am, however, disappointed that his character and his relationship with the children and April wasn’t developed more. He is the more interesting part of the entire story.
On the other hand, is Taraji P. Henson. As an actress I like her; in fact, I loved her story arc in “Boston Legal”. Now, here, while her acting as April is fine, the character itself is stereotypical ghetto or poor African-American – drunk chain smoking woman, living for a man that lies, cheats and beats her – a fault which lies with Tyler Perry himself. This characterizations is not going to appeal to the crossover demographic or in many cases, Perry’s predominantly African-American demographic and may, in fact, have many wagging the fingers and tongues about stereotypical worthlessness. This is not any kind of message to be sending to anyone.
Big kudos go to Mary J. Blige. As April’s best friend Tanya, she perfectly conveys that bartender-best friend vibe and was believable without going ghetto. As Tanya, she is the kind of friend everyone needs. Not to be missed are some incredible vocals by Gladys Knight who plays the god-fearing Wilma as well as Blige’s performance of the film’s theme which she co-wrote with Chuck Harman and Ne-Yo.
But one of the most disappointing parts of the film is Madea. More or less a throw-away character, there really is no need for her in the story. The kids could have just as easily started out breaking into the pharmacy or anywhere else in order to set them up. Madea is such a strong, fun character that once Perry puts her into a story, he needs to keep her there and work her into the plotline more from a grandmotherly sense. Here, the kids lost their grandmother and while Madea is no great shakes, she does provide a strength, discipline and guidance that would have worked well. As the film now stands, you could almost lift her character out completely. And that’s a shame, because Perry is too funny as Madea.
Written and directed by Perry, overall, the story is too short on redemption and actually “glorifies” the life April leads, making it look attractive to young girls in terms of the nightclubbing, performing on stage and men wanting them. Perry could have just as easily written April as a nasty unfeeling daughter and aunt, maybe with a string of bad boyfriends in order to work in Sandino’s character. The story doesn’t need her kinda- sorta shacking up with a married guy, presented in an almost celebratory manner from April’s perspective. Also disturbing to the context is an off-handed sexual abuse aspect seemingly tossed in as just a by-product- after-thought that is not only tacky, but disrespectful to the audience as a whole and to victims of sexual abuse. While I do like the hopeful moralistic aspect of the film, there is nothing to really show any passage of time with any “Come to Jesus” moments of each character. Nothing sets the stage for the development of any real relationships of sincerity, truth and love, which leads to too flippant an ending for such a serious part of the film’s message.
From a technical and directorial standpoint, I am anything but impressed; so much so that during the screening, I wanted to rip film out of the projector. BAD, BAD, BAD edits in at least four places that are so bad that several scenes are cut-off mid-scene, mid-sentence. I can only hope these deficiencies are in the print I screened and not what is being distributed to the theatres. I As for the “lip sync” and looping of the music, this is some of the worst I have ever seen in a film – particularly with Gladys Knight. Words are still being sung while the mouths are closed. The all-out belting of Mary J. Blige has bodily movements synced to the song, but in places her mouth isn’t synced. Very noticeable flaws and more than disturbing. There are also an excessive amount of “drop-in shots”, particularly when it comes to Gladys Knight. There is no rhyme or reason to them and they do nothing to enhance the film or the story. And laugh if you will, but for me, one of the worst visuals in the film is the make-up on Mary J. Blige’s arm in the final block party scene. A BAAAADDDDD job at trying to cover up her right arm tattoo with the makeup color being lighter than her skin tone, standing out like the filling in an Oreo cookie.
Key to every Tyler Perry film is music, particularly gospel music. Here, he has a very eclectic selection including “Rock Steady” written by Arethra Franklin and voiced by Cheryl Pepsii Riley, “Need to Be” written by Jim Weatherly and performed by Knight and of course, Blige’s rousing performances of “I Can Do Bad” and “Good Woman Down:.” Wonderful pieces all, but add to these about 3 or 4 other strong gospel songs and the Baptist choir and the music becomes overkill. Insufficiently interwoven with the story to have a sense of belonging of unity with the script, some of the songs feel like outsiders again with a feeling of being “dropped-in” as a mechanism to grab some other demographics.
Disappointing overall, I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF falls short in comparison to some of Perry’s other films and the level of excellence both technically and from a storytelling standpoint. Sorry Tyler, but I have to say it, you did bad all by yourself with this one.
April – Taraji P. Henson
Jennifer – Hope Olaide Wilson
Sandino – Adam Rodriguez
Manny – Kwesi Boakye
Tanya – Mary J. Blige
Wilma – Gladys Knight
Written and Directed by Tyler Perry based on Perry’s stage play of the same name.