Now that Perry has finally become a competent director, his shortcomings as a writer are amplified
If the Academy Awards, like Pee Wee Football, gave out trophies for Most Improved, Tyler Perry would unquestionably take one home for his latest, “Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds.” Over the course of six years and 11 movies, Perry has achieved an impressive comfort level behind the camera; this time around, we get things like establishing shots and coverage and a cohesive look that tend to be absent in his earlier efforts.
As a writer, Perry also seems willing to leave behind the broad slapstick and heavy-handed melodrama of his previous films. This time, not all of the wealthy people are cruel snobs, and the working class folks aren’t all humble and pious. This may even be the first Perry movie in which Jesus is never mentioned, much less used as a plot point.
So kudos to Perry for improving his craft and growing as a filmmaker. The downside to all of this, unfortunately, is that once you take away the towering drag queen shooting guns and hitting kids in the head, and you eliminate the perils-of-Pauline plotting, we’re left with a fairly dull story about a rich CEO and the struggling single mom who helps him get his groove back.
Perry stars as Wesley Deeds (get it?), who spends his life fulfilling the expectations of his stentorian mother (Phylicia Rashad) by running his father’s company, keeping his ne’er-do-well brother Walter (Brian White) in line, and planning his upcoming wedding to his mom-approved fiancée Natalie (Gabrielle Union).
The film, in fact, opens with Natalie predicting every single thing that Wesley will say or do over the course of the morning, although anyone who’s seen a Perry movie knows that predicting dialogue and action in his films is one of the easiest accomplishments ever.
Wesley plods along through his life until he meets Linsdey (Thandie Newton), a widowed mom who works as a janitor in his building. She’s at the end of her tether, with the IRS garnishing her wages and her landlady kicking her and her 6-year-old daughter Ariel (Jordenn Thompson) to the curb. He gets to be a knight in shining armor, and she gets to crowbar him out of his rut.
That winds up thin gruel for 111 minutes of screen time, mainly because Perry’s not particularly good at writing characters and giving them meaningful things to say. He’s overcome a lot of his bad habits as a scenarist, but he hasn’t replaced them with any strengths worth mentioning.
Newton, for her part, is actress enough to pump some sort of life into Linsdey, even though the role is the sort of martyr Lillian Gish used to play, and Rashad makes her materfamilias chilly but never monstrous.
But then there’s Brian White, giving a performance so one-note that it’s like the only direction Perry gave him was a notecard with the word “RAGE” written on it. And if there’s one area where Perry needs improvement, it’s in his one-dimensional, protesteth-too-much portrayal of gay men — this time, it’s Jamie Kennedy as a cartoonishly queeny fashion designer, complete with 90-degree pinky when he quaffs champagne.
When someone sits down to write “The Films of Tyler Perry,” he or she will rightly tag “Good Deeds” as a turning point in the prolific filmmaker’s career. But it’s far more interesting in the context of his filmography than it is to actually watch.