Tyler Perry has it all figured out now: more Madea, more music, less manipulative melodrama. Following that formula, he seems capable of delivering a solid cinematic statement. Certainly he can be forgiven for being shameless in his emotional excesses and when he can tug at your heartstrings, he prefers to yank on them like a longshoreman mooring a boat. But when a movie like I Can Do Bad All By Myself delivers three-quarters of a confident, if decidedly old-fashioned, entertainment, it's a reason to be optimistic. He may never make a perfect film, but this occasionally overwrought effort shows he's headed in the right direction. Article continues below
When gun-toting grandma Madea Simmons (Perry) catches three young kids breaking into her house, she immediately contacts their nightclub-singer Aunt April (Taraji P. Henson) looking for compensation. Turns out, the alcoholic entertainer wants nothing to do with her 16-year-old niece Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) and her two nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar). She's too busy drowning her sorrows in booze and shacking up with her married boyfriend Randy (Brian J. White). When fate suggests this cold and callous woman must take responsibility, she balks, and it looks like the children will be headed to foster care. Luckily, Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), an immigrant handyman renting a room from April, wants to help, if only to save this lost lady from herself.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself is one of Tyler Perry's best films and that's because he goes back to the blueprint that made his stage shows so outstanding -- simple stories, solid performances, and lots of amazing soul and gospel singing. When you've got thrilling voices like those of Mary J. Blige (as April's bartender friend) and Gladys Knight (as a kindly church congregation member) on hand, why not let them do most of your dramatic heavy lifting. Along with the magnificent Marvin Wayans as a local pastor (his highlight, "Just Don't Wanna Know/Over It Now", is breathtaking), I Can Do Bad delivers musical moments so powerful, so undeniably compelling, that you can't help but be moved by what you hear. Blige just brings the house down with her take on the title track.
Luckily, the scripted situations mostly match the sonic presence. Hope Olaide Wilson is excellent as Jennifer, her aggressive attitude masking a horrific childhood of pain. She has a last-act confrontation with her aunt that is startling in its raw honesty. Henson is also very good, never going overboard with April's drinking or her "who gives a damn" personality. Typical of any Perry production, men are either gods (Rodriguez) or moustache-twirling villainous clods (White), but in both cases, the filmmaker never pushes it. Instead, there's an organic flow to this film that's been missing from most of his previous work. Sure, I Can Do Bad overstays its welcome, not quite sure of how to wrap things up and end on the right beat. But there's enough remaining entertainment value to leave you satisfied.
And then there's Madea, a successful comic creation often marginalized by those outside Perry's intended audience. In fact, she's nothing more than a cartoon carefully conceived to give viewers a voice in what are often very obvious and identifiable dilemmas. The brazen battleaxe has a scene with a grieving Jennifer which is priceless in its cockeyed Bible storytelling. Yet she doesn't dominate the situations. Instead, she's used as an accent, a satiric aside in balance with the other motion picture parts. While Perry is still preaching to the already converted, I Can Do Bad All By Myself confirms that he's finally figured out how to turn said sermonizing into a far more mainstream experience.