Melodrama and laughs

Movie Review

February 25, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Diary of a Mad Black Woman is an uneasy mix of comedy, drama and good old-fashioned religious fervor. The humor, honed by writer-actor Tyler Perry during years on the stage in urban venues throughout the country, is plentiful, but the drama is obvious, mawkish and too sincere for its own good. Still, the movie is so unapologetically suffused with compassion and good feelings that its shortcomings are hard not to forgive.

Diary is the story of poor Helen McCarter (Woman, Thou Art Loosed's Kimberly Elise), the willing trophy wife of a mega-successful Atlanta attorney. Although she seems to have always suspected that her husband didn't love her, Helen is nonetheless shocked into hysteria when he announces his plans one night to walk out. Even worse, she's being replaced by his trashy, obviously gold-digging mistress, with whom he has two children.

Thrown out on the street, with no idea where to go and no resources of her own to call on (a prenup she rashly signed has assured that), Helen heads back to the old neighborhood. And there she links up with Medea, the hero of our little play.

Medea is Helen's grandmother, and she takes guff from no one, least of all some rich snob lawyer who stomps on her granddaughter's heart. Medea supplies Helen with the necessary spine to stick up for herself and claim what is rightfully hers; Diary lets us watch the audience-pleasing results.

All that sounds pretty straightforward, and much of it is - relentlessly so. Perry's no great dramatist; his narrative is predictable, his characters one-dimensional, his resolutions far too pat. But as a humorist, Perry is a crowd-pleaser of the first order. Did I mention that he plays Medea, in drag and with enough padding to fill out a medium-sized sofa?

Medea, a gun-toting, foul-mouthed grandma, is a wonderful comic invention, an audience surrogate unafraid to tell Helen what she needs to hear. When she's onscreen, Diary has heart, verve and charisma to burn.

Perry, the writer, despite director Darren Grant's efforts at maintaining a pace that somehow keeps everything in perspective, is too intent on being all things to all people. For the first half-hour, the film is ramrod-straight drama, then Medea turns the film into a raucous spoof, then it's back to stock melodrama, then Perry appears as yet another character (lecherous Uncle Joe) and the laugh spigot is turned on full blast.

Then, just when the audience begins to get an uneasy handle on things, the whole movie ends up in church for a revival meeting that reveals the film's true themes - forgiveness, redemption and trust in God. Those are all fine messages, but most viewers are going to be suffering from too severe a case of tone-induced whiplash to notice.

Elise does her best to appear earnest, but is defeated by a script that's too simplistic to give her much to work with (when Medea's onscreen, she's reduced to the thankless role of straight woman). As her no-good husband, Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) plays strictly to stereotype.

Give Perry credit, though. Like the early blaxploitation directors, who revealed an audience Hollywood filmmakers never knew they had, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is clearly on to something. Set squarely in the black middle class, grounded in the bedrock values of the black church, this is a movie that falls short only because it insists on grabbing for so much.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Starring Kimberly Elise, Tyler Perry, Steve Harris

Directed by Darren Grant

Released by New Line

Rated PG-13 (drug content, crude sexual references, some violence)

Time 116 minutes

Sun Score **

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