There's more life, more heart, more simple pleasure in "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" than in any Tyler Perry movie since his first, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman."
He stages a decent fistfight, a riveting and potentially deadly showdown in a bathtub and half a dozen big, moving musical numbers. He gives his cross-dressing creation Madea a botched Bible stories monologue ("That's when Noah showed up, with his Arch, the St. Louis Arch ...") that ranks as the funniest thing that pistol-packing mama ever did.
And he builds his film around the terrific Taraji P. Henson, who proves her "Benjamin Button" Oscar nomination was no fluke by utterly classing up the joint -- and singing, to boot.
"All by Myself" still has scenes, characters and dialogue that cry out for more polish. By shoving half a dozen songs -- gospel, funk and soul -- into the film, Perry shows he still hasn't mastered pace and learned to sacrifice scenes to make his movies faster and smoother.
But this is progress. By the time the Oscar contender "Precious," which he is shepherding into theaters this fall, and his newly announced plans to adapt and film the classic "For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf" move forward, we may see the last of these quick-and-dirty adaptations of his popular but sloppy, sermonizing stage plays.
Henson plays April, an Atlanta club singer with a smoking problem, a drinking problem and a living-with-a-married-man problem (Brian J. White). Darned if her dead sister's three kids don't land in her lap.
We've actually met the little darlings earlier. They were breaking into Madea's house. Perry stages an uproarious stomp-fest as Madea beats and kicks her burglars senseless before switching on the lights and realizing they're children. Madea is the one who hauls the kids over to April's dump of a house. She gripes about "parents these days" and tries to teach the "chirren" manners.
"You say 'Yes ma'am' to me!"
"I will pimp-slap you!"
I've always enjoyed Perry's very Southern style of Madea-exaggeration and threat -- "I will hit you so hard ..." I also like the life lessons he shoehorns in about parenting, unselfishness and self worth.
"Clothes don't make you pretty. Clothes make you broke." "Living takes a lifetime." "If you give some good things to people, good things come back to you -- most of the time."
April's church gets into her business. They force a handsome immigrant handyman (Adam Rodriguez) on her and he lures her in to hear Sister Wilma (Gladys Knight) and the pastor (gospel star Marvin L. Winans) sing. And her singer-barmaid pal (Mary J. Blige) pipes up, too. It's time for April to accept some responsibility, love herself and give love to other -- and not that shirtless creep with the washboard stomach she's been shacking up with (another Perry trademark: men as pretty as the ladies).
We know where all this is headed long before the third pause for a song (in clubs, in church). Perry dithers away another 45 minutes and sours some of the good will the film's uplifting and entertaining first hour have earned. As a guy who learned to write for the stage, his movies all play stage-bound, even when the camera moves. The close-ups give the actor's their moments but make the finished film a static affair, lurching along on a too-familiar path.
But he is getting better. I just hope he runs out of these dizzy plays soon so he can burn some of that capital he's earned on something that challenges him and his audience.