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Shallow caricatures lack edge

Stereotypes undermine writer Tyler Perry's 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman.'

February 25, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Playwright-screenwriter Tyler Perry exudes considerable raw talent and abundant passion, which energizes "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," directed by Darren Grant from Perry's adaptation of his play. But Perry short-circuits his serious effort to dramatize a woman's attempt to rebuild her life after her husband has dumped her by casting himself not only as Madea, a gun-toting, loud, outsized battle-ax, but also her foul-mouthed brother Joe. These characters, which Perry worked into the narrative from other stage performances, may have been entertaining in those venues, but they undermine the film.

Comic relief is often welcome in drama, but these broad caricatures, which draw easy laughter as the minstrel turns they are, destroy the sense of reality that a large and hardworking cast is otherwise striving to create. Perversely, Perry also casts himself as the heroine's attorney cousin, and he is completely acceptable as a normal husband and father trying to cope with a junkie wife (Tamara Taylor).

On the eve of his 18th wedding anniversary, Steve Harris' Charles, a successful Atlanta area attorney, receives an award at a lavish banquet and graciously thanks his beautiful wife, Helen (Kimberly Elise), for the loving support that made his success possible. After the couple get home, Charles announces to Helen that their marriage is over and literally throws her out, with all her clothing and personal possessions to be carted away in a U-haul. Charles is eager to move in his tough-dame mistress -- and their two small children.

Helen takes refuge with Madea, a grandmother figure to her, and copes with the shock of rejection by the man she loves, rebuilding her life step by painful step. Her cousin Brian (Perry) steps forward to represent her in the divorce case, she gets a job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, and she warily allows herself to be courted by the handsome and sensitive Orlando (Shemar Moore), a factory worker who just happened to have been hired to drive that U-haul. The anger and pain Helen must work through to begin to trust the solid Orlando, who has been dumped by his steady for a rich guy, is entirely plausible -- and the heart of the film.

Elise was also the star of the recent and powerful "Woman Thou Art Loosed," and like that film, "Diary" is grounded in religious faith. Both films' true believers accept human frailties and life's realities in a nonjudgmental way. When Helen and her friends and relatives, including Cicely Tyson as Helen's elegant mother, a devout Christian with a strong belief in forgiveness, go to church, it is to participate in a joyous expression of faith and belief in the healing power of salvation. "Woman Thou Art Loosed" and "Diary," both based on plays widely seen in African American communities, are part of a growing number of religious-themed African American films that are beginning to make a dent at the box office; it's not for nothing that Lions Gate Films is distributing "Diary."

As in "Woman," Elise has the vivid, full-bodied presence melodrama demands, and while Grant's control over his cast and material is wobbly, Perry's sure dramatic instincts inspire him to create a climactic double-whammy payoff. Florid but psychologically and emotionally valid and satisfying, it makes his turns as Joe and Madea in particular all the more unfortunate.


'Diary of a Mad Black Woman'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements, crude sexual references and some violence

Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations

Kimberly Elise...Helen

Steve Harris...Charles

Shemar Moore...Orlando

Cicely Tyson...Myrtle

Tyler Perry...Brian, Madea, Joe

A Lions Gate Films presentation. Director Darren Grant. Producers Reuben Cannon, Tyler Perry. Executive producers Michael Paseornek, John Dellaverson, Robert. L. Johnson. Screenplay by Perry; based upon his play. Cinematographer David Claessen. Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire. Music Elvin D. Ross and Perry. Costumes Keith G. Lewis. Production designer Ina Mayhew. Set decorator Joseph Litsch. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

In general release.

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