Saturday, October 3, 2009
Tyler Perry's Taraji P. Henson's I Can Do Bad Good AMAZING All By Myself
Imagine this situation: a film by a well-known but not necessarily "respected" director is released and makes a typical but more-than-respectable $25 million over its opening weekend. Within a week, the film is rated low enough by the filmgoing public to appear in IMDB's Bottom 100 along with such illustrious titles as The Hottie and the Nottie and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. But, when you ask anyone who has seen the film, their response to the movie ranges from "amazing" to "meh." So who exactly is rating this movie so low? Why, people who have never actually seen the movie or anything by this director but are so put-off by something in his work (his success, possibly, or the fact that he caters almost exclusively to the African American community with his work) that they rate everything the man's ever done as "WORST PIECE OF TRASH EVERRRRRRR" without giving it a fair chance.
Who am I talking about? In case you haven't guessed it, his name is Tyler Perry and the work in question is his most recent, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself. And, contrary to what IMDb will have you believing, this is his best work to date. It's not perfect by any means and he still hasn't completely eliminated his Haggis-esque tendency to reduce some characters to simple good vs. evil stereotypes, but, undeniably, there's something beating inside this film (and his last two, actually) that's simply too alive and exciting to unfairly dismiss and ignore. The musical sequences, in particular, are simply stunning. The legendary Gladys Knight and Mary J. Blige are both on hand to perform stirring R&B numbers and Perry, opting to keep the camera pointed on the performers instead of maniacally cutting every which way, treats these musical numbers with the respect they deserve. He captures these artists doing what they do best and even manages to fit it in with the soulful bluesiness of the film. Nick's Flick Picks does a better job of describing Perry's musical sensibilities in the film, so I'll just leave you with one final thought/plea on my end: Oprah, Our Lord and Saviour, please let your new BFF Tyler Perry tackle the film adaptation of the The Color Purple musical. We already knew he has a great talent for bringing out the best in actresses over 30 (and black actresses at that!) but now we've found out he can do musical numbers as well. Besides, he'll have to work from someone else's story and can't we agree that his screenplays are usually his weakest link?
Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself is a generally good film in its own right, but the one person who needs to be given credit for taking it to a whole new level is Taraji P. Henson. Perhaps best known for her Oscar-nominated "mammy" in last year's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Henson first came to my attention as the loud-mouthed girlfriend to Don Cheadle in the underappreciated biopic Talk to Me and I've loved her ever since. Although I've yet to see her apparently stellar work in Hustle & Flow, nothing (not even her scene-stealing work in Boston Legal or subdued while typically strong wife in The Family That Preys) has come close to topping that initial impression. It's not entirely her fault--if you think great white actresses pushing-40 have a tough time finding worthy scripts, just ask Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alfre Woodard and Viola Davis about finding a role that's not a supportive wife in an inspirational sports drama or sassy black friend to middle-aged white woman--I just wish Hollywood would take more chances with these women outside of Tyler Perry's filmography.
In case you are unfamiliar, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself follows April (Henson), a misguided, selfish, alcoholic singer who is forced to look after her dead drug addicted sister's children when her mother, the children's sole source of support and love, winds up missing after going to work one day. The film and April's progression as a character often takes the expected path--let's just say that the ending doesn't exactly need a spoiler warning--but Taraji P. Henson plays every scene like it's all brand new. It is often astonishing watching her doing something countless other actresses before her have done and make it really come alive for us in the audience. Her entrance alone, fro-ed out, sashaying out to the rhythm of Aretha Franklin's 'Rock Steady' and propelling herself into the opening frames of the film like an unstoppable force of nature, speaks volumes about the direction Henson is taking with this character. She's going to be fierce, loud, in your face and if you don't like it, well you can suck it.
There are two back-to-back scenes that happen right before the inevitable moment when April sees the light that perhaps best show why Henson's performance is probably my favorite of the year thusfar. The first is a particularly intense moment when April's bad boyfriend tries to molest the oldest of her sister's children, the self-reliant Jennifer. The hot Latino handyman living with her stops it by punching him before anything happens. April then enters the scene and must quickly decide who to believe: her man lying on the floor telling her that she was coming on to him or her niece, crying and shaking after the traumatic situation that just took place. There's this look on Henson's face, almost a flash of remembrance of something in her past, which fades as she tries to decide who to believe. Eventually she goes with her man and suggests he goes upstairs to take a bath. April follows him up with her niece yelling after her all the way. Then, in what can only be described as the most insane scene this year outside of Obsessed, April decides to confront her man while he's taking his bath. She asks him what really happened and he continues to feed her a bunch of bullshit. Unsatisfied with his answers, she grabs a boombox, plugs it into the wall and holds it over the tub, demanding that he tell her the truth. He still lies, so April lowers it closer and closer to the water like she's in The Pit and the Pendulum or something. Finally, she drops it into the water just as he admits what he did but, unfortunately, he makes it out only slightly hurt. Crazy, huh? I told you! What makes this scene work so well for me is the fact that while the premise is extreme camp, Henson sells it enough that we start to buy it as a logical choice for the character. She's not taking any more bullshit from anyone, especially involving sexual abuse, so it's time to show that she really means business.
The next scene, after she apologizes to Jennifer and admits that she believed her the whole time, we find her drunk off her ass at the bar she sings at. The hot Latino hunk from before has followed her to find out what's going on with her. It's at this point that Henson recites this beautifully gin-soaked monologue about her own past with sexual abuse. She goes on about how men can't be trusted, especially ones that like to be around children. Then, the monologue takes a sharp turn as she starts aiming her dagger of hatred and suspicion toward the hot Latino who, at this point, has been the sole source of support for the children since their grandmother vanished. She questions his motives for spending so much time with them before, loudly, outright accusing him of molesting the children. April has been so damaged and jaded by all of the men in her life she becomes suspicious of anyone gets close to her; eventually they're just going to turn on her, so why bother? Henson does this monologue and scene a world of justice, sharply navigating the turnabout from one subject to another and making it all go together coherently.
April could have been a quick throwaway performance for most actresses since the high drama is alright built right in, but Taraji P. Henson does it better by connecting these scenes of outright craziness into the psyche of a crazed character. Henson is absolutely fearless in this film, giving the type of performance in it I think Bette Davis in all of her out-there, psychotic glory would have done had she been alive to do this film. And, for me, that's the highest praise possible. Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself: B, Taraji P. Henson's Performance: A