In the dubious tradition of Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films and Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is another exploration of the supposedly limitless comedy of black men in fat suits and dresses. It’s also a schizophrenic mess, part infantile humor, part female-empowerment seminar, part come-to-Jesus exhortation, and part romantic fairy tale. Diary is based on the incomprehensibly successful play of the same name and was adapted by its author, Tyler Perry, who also deigned to play half the characters and write half the songs. He apparently makes up in self-assurance what he clearly lacks in talent and taste, which says a lot about the size of his ego.
The story begins with a situation so artificial you can’t believe it was ever put down on paper, let alone filmed, then goes on to become even more contrived, with no internal logic or consistency of tone or characterization. Charles McCarter (Steve Harris) is a vain and improbably successful Atlanta defense attorney, with a mansion the size of the Pentagon and a beautiful, if blank, stay-at-home wife, Helen (Kimberly Elise). Helen fears they’ve grown apart, which seems an understatement, given his secretiveness and verbal abuse. Asked about his mysterious late-night disappearances he snaps, “When you get a job and pay one of these bills, then you can ask me a question!” Her fears are confirmed when, without warning, and on the evening of their 18th wedding anniversary, Charles has Helen’s clothing packed into a U-Haul and replaced with the new wardrobe he’s just bought for his mistress, Brenda (who is no prettier or younger-looking than Helen, but is about five shades paler, and whom Helen coincidentally met just that afternoon), who is moving into the mansion with Charles’ two secret children in tow. (Two secret children? How many years has this been going on — and how freakin’ dense is Helen?) “Now be a lady and leave quietly,” Charles suggests evenly, though he’s not averse to dragging his wife out by her hair when she refuses.
Fortunately, the man Charles hired to move Helen’s things is a corn-rowed vision of romance-novel-style virility named Orlando (Shemar Moore, who must be missing the nuance and verisimilitude of the writing on “The Young and the Restless” by this point in the story). It’s instantly clear that Helen will wind up in Orlando’s arms, so all that’s left is over an hour of “drug content … crude sexual references … violence,” (per the MPAA) and devout Christianity (?!) before the inevitable final clinch.
Having been forced by Charles to ostracize her entire family (and apparently not having found time in the past 18 years to make any friends), Helen winds up banging on the door of an elderly relative named Madea, who initially seems to be her aunt, later her grandmother, and finally her deceased grandfather’s second wife. (On this measure, at least, Perry’s script is entirely consistent: The complex familial relationships between several major characters are painfully vague and took me a good two-thirds of the film to puzzle out.) Madea is played by Perry, with pendulous bosoms heaving beneath his caftan, as is her craggy, flatulent, pot-smoking brother Joe. The two elderly (in every sense) racial caricatures have been lifted whole from The Nutty Professor, with no attempt to freshen or otherwise redeem their crude, raucous, “comedy.” Perry’s only addition to the stereotype of the fat, loudmouthed, old black woman is a brief, bizarre “Wire hanger!” moment, taken from Mommy Dearest and thus out of any context in which it might make sense.
Madea is a gun-toting nutjob, counseling Helen to take extreme action in response to Charles’ betrayal — which leads to some confusion about the film’s title. Helen is our narrator; this is her “diary” we’re supposed to be following, but Madea is the only madwoman in sight. For most of the film, Helen is uncannily placid, given her situation; she only seems “mad” (in any sense) when another character reminds her she’s supposed to be. It’s not really Elise’s fault (though she does little to counteract it); the character is barely developed at all. She’s awfully unformed for a woman in her 30s, having no interests of her own and relying on whomever is around to provide her with any sense of how to act or think.
Perry appears in yet a third (and thankfully final) role as Joe’s son Bill, another lawyer, who is married to Helen’s childhood friend Debrah, who, in Helen’s absence, has become a street-wandering junkie, abandoning their two children. Bill is friends with Orlando, whom he coincidentally invites to a cookout at Madea’s house, where he and Helen clash, as all soon-to-be-movie-lovers must. Also in the mix is the redoubtable Cicely Tyson as Helen’s mother Myrtle Jean, who seems exported from a gentler, more dignified, but terribly sentimental film (perhaps she crept in from Because of Winn-Dixie, which was playing in the theater next door). We meet Myrtle Jean when Helen goes to visit her at the retirement home to which Charles has consigned her (apparently none of his dozens of empty rooms were available). Tyson brings her righteous dignity to the character, who is meant to be the film’s moral center, and we see how the faith she’s taught Helen helps her heal, but too many scenes undercut it, through both Madea and Joe’s direct mockery of religion and Helen’s (temporary) abandonment of Christian behavior when she’s given an opportunity for vengeance.
You see, Helen has begun to rebuild her life — “I’m finding myself” (yes, she actually uses just those words) — with a cute new haircut (slightly funkier than her old Miss America ‘do), a job as a waitress, and a romance with Orlando, who we learn is a “good, Christian man” who romances her every single night for four months, sleeps chastely beside her (“We both wanted to make love, but he gave me something greater: Intimacy.”), and works in a steel mill for no other reason than to permit the theft of the closing scene from An Officer and a Gentleman.
But the Bard said “the course of true love never did run smooth,” so an absurd set of circumstances must bring Charles back into Helen’s life, just as she’s about to accept Orlando’s marriage proposal. Jamison (Gary Sturgis), an old criminal associate of Charles’, has killed a cop and insists, really, really insists, in that way that only scary, gravel-voiced gangsters can, that Charles be his attorney. He mentions in passing that he helped Charles make his real money, which came not from lawyering but cocaine-smuggling. Helen never learns this, nor do the police or anyone else, so it’s just there to make him seem more evil, which is like sprinkling your gilded lilies with diamond dust. When his plea of self-defense (in a cop killing?) fails and he’s convicted, he grabs a gun from the holster of the world’s most incompetent bailiff and puts four bullets in Charles. He hovers near death for days, while Brenda splits town with his sons and his money, and Helen, doing “the Christian thing,” waits by his bedside for weeks, seeming to forget all about Orlando.
Upon Charles’ release from the hospital, Helen takes her paralyzed husband home to the mansion, where we find that her Christianity precludes premarital sex but not mentally and physically torturing the helpless (a brand of Christianity that’s become all too familiar in the past four years). Which is just as well, as Elise only really comes alive when she’s furious. The innocent-little-girl thing drops to the side and she finally (far too late) begins to show some real energy. And lucky her; it turns out all Charles needed to see the light was a little abuse. Soon he’s begging for forgiveness from both Helen and God himself, in the film’s climactic absurdity, a church scene in which his soul is saved and Debrah suddenly (yet predictably) enters mid-hymn, rehabilitated from her addiction and with a solo mysteriously prepared. (A few people in the theater with me cheered at this life-affirming moment, while I tried to stifle my guffaws.) In an apparent attempt to outdo its ridiculousness, this scene is followed by one in which Helen tells Charles she’ll always love him, and then presents him with divorce papers at the dinner table in front of her entire family, so she can run off to the steel mill and pick up Orlando.
Throughout the film, the romance between Helen and Orlando is full of deliberate fairy-tale elements (Orlando was the name of a knight celebrated in the Renaissance and Baroque, and the phrases “fairy tale” and “knight in shining armor” are used ad nauseum), so I assume we’re meant to take Diary on that level and not be bothered by its numerous unrealistic elements. But it lacks the necessary sense of enchantment, and the inclusion of drug addiction and domestic violence and a recognizable present-day Atlanta setting ground the story too much in reality for fantasy to take hold, while the profusion of “coincidences,” the cardboard-flat characters, and their over-the-top behavior make it impossible to see the story as naturalistic.
Diary is the kind of movie that tempts critics to say the makers have no understanding of real life, knowing only hackneyed plot devices, so it was a surprise when I read that Perry made his name with a play about adult survivors of child abuse, of which he is one, and that he was homeless on and off for several years, with only his faith to keep him going. It would be heartless not to sympathize with Perry over the hardships he’s faced, but it’s difficult to understand how a man with such a background could create a story so patently phony and lacking in understanding of human behavior, or how a man of faith could use Christianity so cynically, as a plot device to be used or discarded from one scene to the next. Using film as a vehicle for promoting faith is much like using it for political propaganda; both will wear on an audience very quickly if done without subtlety or real conviction, two things Diary is sorely missing.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.If you hated this review, you should read this before you leave an angry comment.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()