Remember this name: Tyler Perry.
All this makes his debut film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," one of the strangest and silliest movies I've seen in quite a while. I hate to say something as cliched as "You've never seen anything like it," but why worry about cliches? (Perry doesn't.) And you probably haven't seen anything like thisunless you've seen the play. The often-ludicrous hybrid camp vision of writer-producer-star Perry, visualized in lush, "Waiting to Exhale"-style images by rock video director Darren L. Grant, is upfront and unabashedly weird.
The film may be badand madbut it's not predictable. Perry and Grant start it off with overstated, shopworn melodrama: the familiar tale of an abused and abandoned wife, Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise of "Beloved"), brutally tossed out of her posh Atlanta home by her callous, cheating lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris) and forced to find herself, and true love, with local hunk/house-mover Orlando (Shemar Moore of "The Young and the Restless"). But the movie quickly abandons the usual valentine card cliches for crazily diverse show-biz clichés of all varieties, a truly flabbergasting mixture of African-American romance, Christian soap opera and "Sanford and Son"-style racy TV sketch comedy.
It also provides an amazing showcase for the talented and uninhibited Perry, who sometimes comes across as a drag show Redd Foxx, choreographed by John Waters for an unhinged after-hours edition of Pat Robertson's "700 Club."
Although often ridiculous, "Diary" is rarely boringespecially when Perry is on screen. He plays three roles in the film and the only relatively normal one is Helen's good-hearted buppie cousin Brian, a nice-guy Atlanta dad married to a strung-out heroin addict (Tamara Taylor) who keeps wandering home, trying to score drug money, help or pathos.
But Perry's other parts are pretty outrageous. Take his appearance as Helen's seedy Uncle Joe (please). Joe is the Foxx knockoff as a lecherous, pot-smoking, cynical, tush-grabbing old reprobate who tries to combine the most obnoxious traits of Cedric the Entertainer's "Barbershop" badmouth Eddie and Foxx's genial junkman Sanford, while crudely insulting everyone in sight, including saintly Cicely Tyson as neighbor Myrtle.
But Joe's nothing next to Perry's last turn as the formidable Madea (slang for "My Dear"), Joe's sister and Helen's aunt. She's a hefty, gun-toting, bad-mouthed grandma with huge, bouncing bosom, a rear end that resembles a sofa, a horrendous temper, a taste for pot and a tendency to sashay and swear. Despite her gray wig and super-zaftig figure, Madea looks no more like a woman than did the late drag diva Divine in Waters' moviesand she talks like a locker-room wag or a burlesque emcee.
What are these characters and their unbuttoned antics doing in a movie that often recalls the independently produced Christian melodramas that used to play the church circuit in the '50s and '60s? "Diary" ambles on for a while in its yuppie/religious soap opera mode, with Helen and Orlando bickering and wooing and an occasional burst of villainy from bad hubby Charlesand eventually it brings in Uncle Eddie, Aunt Madea, their rowdy friends, and even a hospital crisis to make the final redemption more extreme.
Yet while "Diary" is preachy, it's also pretty bawdy. At times, Perry seems to be doing double duty as God's spokesman/woman and the Devil's gag man, a drag queen preacher man and happy dust peddlerand you wonder if he wants to sell our souls and buy them back again in the same movie.
Perry adapted the script from his own successful playand the title is a cross between Frank and Eleanor Perry's 1970 domestic drama "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and Nikolai Gogol's nightmarish 19th Century classic tale "Diary of a Madman." But this moviewith its mix of religious homilies, sentimental romance and ribald wisecracksis more ga-ga than Gogol and madder than anything those other Perrys could have imagined.
Tyler Perry, even if he's no church-show Peter Sellers, obviously carves out some kind of niche here. Remember, they laughed at Ed Wood. And they're still laughing at him.
"Diary of a Mad Black Woman"
Directed by Darren R. Grant; written by Tyler Perry, based on his play; photographed by David Claessen; edited by Terilyn Shropshire; production designed by Ina Mayhew; songs by Perry; music by Elvin Ross; music supervisor Camara Kambon; produced by Perry, Reuben Cannon. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for drug content, thematic elements, crude sexual elements and some violence.)
Helen McCarter - Kimberly Elise
Charles McCarter - Steve Harris
Brian, Madea, Uncle Joe - Tyler Perry
Myrtle - Cicely Tyson
Orlando - Shemar Moore
Debrah - Tamara Taylor
Brenda - Lisa Marcos