Tyler Perry in "Alex Cross." (Summit Entertainment )
"Alex Cross," Tyler Perry's box-office flub this weekend, is, in many ways, easy to explain. The typical audience for Perry's household "Madea" movies is older women. The typical audience for a detective procedural is older men. When you try to get the latter to see a star who appeals to the former, it doesn't work. The movie grossed $11.8 million, Perry's lowest opening total in the dozen films he's made as an actor.
What it doesn't explain is how so many other actors have been able to redefine their base in a way that seems to elude Perry. Will Smith went from femme-leaning comedy actor to male-centric action star. Ditto for countless others. And James Patterson, from whose books the Cross detective-psychologist character comes, isn’t exclusively the province of males.
What it also doesn’t address is how Perry fixes this pigeonhole problem -- or at least tweaks his career so that he isn’t Madea for the rest of his life.
Perry has been remarkably consistent since coming on the scene early this century. Most of the comedies he's starred in -- seven of 10 -- have grossed between $50 million and $65 million. Any sign that he's fading is always quickly dispelled. When his "Good Deeds" disappointed last February, he quickly atoned for it with the $65 million from a new "Madea" movie a few months later.
Perry clearly wants to be thought as more than just a wisecracking cross-dresser. Does he have the acting chops to pull it off? It's worth continuing to try, if only because everyone loves a reinvention story.
Here are a few paths he might take to pull it off.
Go art house. An Oscar-season turn -- one that gets him real heat -- could redefine both his base and how the industry sees him. His one foray in this direction, "For Colored Girls" -- which he directed but did not act in -- was one of his lowest-grossing efforts. But a difficult drama with a largely unknown title still took in nearly $40 million in the heart of a competitive fall season. There are worse results.
Go genre. One that appeals more to women, that is. He’s already trying that, after a fashion, as a director with this spring's "The Marriage Counselor" and the in-development "Single Mom's Club," which he’ll also star in. No reason not to keep pushing outward.
Take a break from "Madea" movies. It won't make Lionsgate very happy. But the constant flow of movies -- an average of nearly two per year dating back to 2006 -- is reinforcing the image of Perry as a loud, sassy grandma and nothing else. Some time away could do his image good. It may also refresh his creative juices.
Pair up with a known star. Part of the problem with "Alex Cross" is that it didn't offer us another well-known actor to slap money down for. (Matthew Fox doesn't count.) That left Perry to do much of the heavy lifting, both on screen and at the box office. Yes, Perry is used to being the star. But a supporting part opposite some talent would help. Look at what it did for Mo'Nique in the Perry-produced "Precious."
Perry can make "Madea" movies the rest of his life. But it won't make anyone besides a core group very happy. It probably won't make him very happy either.
And sure, he hasn't shown tremendous range. Then again, there are actors with less range who have more diverse careers. Time to hit reset on the reinvention.
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