First, the good news. Uncharacteristically for a February release targeting African-American viewers, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is not a yuppie romantic comedy featuring Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut. Anthony Anderson and Eddie Griffin are nowhere to be seen, and despite the fact that the most memorable character is a broadly played, overweight female, the role did not go to Queen Latifah. Tyler Perry, upon whose play the movie is based, wrote the screenplay and stars in it, so whatever one may say about the film, it's definitely the creator's vision.
The bad news is that it's a total mess, occasionally stumbling onto some decent ideas before lurching away toward something totally different. Part female revenge flick, part Saturday Night Live skit, part courtroom drama and part religious tent revival, the whole never congeals into anything worth watching.
The setup seems promising, if conventional: Seemingly successful couple Helen (Kimberly Elise) and Charles (Steve Harris) are revealed to be anything but, and he kicks her out of the house on their anniversary, to take up with a spoiled white woman (Lisa Marcos). Mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore, Helen moves in with her sassy, gun-toting grandmother, Madea. And this is where the first warning bell goes off, for while everything thus far has played like a passable drama, Madea is ludicrously played by Tyler Perry in drag. And for the benefit of those who don't know what Perry looks like, let's just say that Martin Lawrence was more feminine in Big Momma's House, as is SNL's Kenan Thompson when he impersonates Star Jones. Perry has portrayed Madea on the stage in several plays to great audience acclaim, but live theater doesn't require close-ups.
If that weren't enough, Perry -- apparently under the impression that he has the skills of Eddie Murphy -- also plays Madea's brother Joe, a pot-smoking dirty old man who makes wisecracks about hand jobs and incest. In a third role, minus several pounds of latex, he also plays Helen's cousin Brian, a lawyer married to a junkie (Tamara Taylor).
Also in the mix is Perfect Man -- a sensitive, working-class dude with lots of savings, a great body and the uncanny ability to never act anything like a real guy would -- who goes by the name of Orlando, or "O-Dogg" (Shemar Moore). Needless to say, Helen hates him at first, but his relentless conformity to romance-novel stereotypes will wear her down.
On paper, this may sound like a typical romantic comedy with a little broad comic relief. But the less-advertised agenda is that it's a strongly Christian movie, the kind in which characters can solve anything by going to church together. Helen's mother (Cicely Tyson) sets the tone by telling her that "God is your everything! He don't want no man before Him!" as inspirational music swells. Soon afterward, she dispenses motherly advice: "Just ask the Savior to help you." In case you didn't catch that, a gospel-tinged vocal on the soundtrack chimes in: "Just AAAASK...the SAVIOR...to HELP...YOUUUUU!" And if you think that's bad, wait until you get to the R&B cover of Joan Osborne's "One of Us" (as in "What if God was..."). Even if the songs don't give it away enough, Helen clarifies in voiceover that one of Orlando's strengths is that he's a Christian.
And yet: If this is a film for traditional Christian audiences, what are they to make of Uncle Joe's pot-smoking and love of porn, or Madea's refusal to come to church until they open a smoking section? Hell, as Madea, Perry is a guy dressing in women's clothing, and one advocating irresponsible use of firearms and evasion of the law, no less (put under house arrest, she works her way around the sentence). Perhaps the goal was to have something for everyone, but the result is more akin to insulting everyone's intelligence and/or sensibilities. Had Madea been played by an actual woman -- say Irma P. Hall from The Ladykillers -- the material would probably feel funnier and more authentic, while being potentially less offensive to evangelicals at the same time.
What's frustrating is that there are isolated moments of the film that really work. Occasional references to racism within the black community are stinging -- Charles' lover wondering if Helen is "one of those weak, begging sistas," Charles telling a criminal acquaintance that "I don't defend your kind anymore" or Orlando accusing Helen of being "just another bitter black woman."
And Kimberly Elise, no stranger to Christian proselytizing movies after Woman Thou Art Loosed, is a strong actress who creates a powerful portrait of a woman scorned. The scenes in which she actually confronts her cheating hubbie have an energy and relatability that transcend simple gender-identity canards, and when she finally exacts her revenge, it is sweet indeed. Except that this being a fundamentally religious film, we don't get to enjoy the comeuppance -- there has to be forgiveness, and even a sermon.
Every time the movie loses sight of the Helen-versus-husband personal conflict, however, it goes to Hell in a handbasket, and that's often. Aside from Perry's irritating clowning as Madea and Joe, there's also a subplot involving an over-the-top evil drug dealer whom Charles represents in court and some really lame jokes about Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston. The humor is so cartoonish that it's impossible to take the "serious" content as being representative of anything remotely real.
One thing that's genuinely funny, though, and perhaps not on purpose, is the casting of the extras. In many of the key scenes, it looks as though some utterly befuddled white people from a nearby old folks' home were bussed in without being told exactly what they were participating in. When the film hits DVD, there'll be great potential in a drinking game that involves pointing these people out.