Even as Tyler Perry the industry grows more and more stable and certain, reliably putting out cost-effective cultural products across a number of platforms, Tyler Perry the filmmaker remains a work in progress. There is still something both oddly thrilling and endlessly frustrating about his work as writer, director and performer.
When Perry sets films within the universe of broad tones steered by his signature character of Madea, veering madly from comedy to melodrama, he seems more sure-footed than when he makes films set ostensibly in the genuine contemporary here and now. In "Tyler Perry's Good Deeds" he plays, indeed, a character named Wesley Deeds III who learns how to be genuinely good.
Set in San Francisco — though apart from outdoor establishing shots it seems the film was made in Perry's home base of Georgia — the story revolves around Wesley as head of his family's software corporation and how he seems to have his life in order. Except he increasingly feels it's a life thrust upon him and not of his own choosing. Preparing to marry Natalie (Gabrielle Union), he meets a night janitor at his office (Thandie Newton) who turns his life upside down.
At times it seems Perry wants to flirt with making an income-inequality romance, with Newton's character a struggling single mother recently evicted from her apartment. Yet in constantly re-orienting the story to the self-discovery of Wesley Deeds (you know, his character) Perry undercuts the film's contemporary resonance to fall back on the disconcerting pious self-satisfaction that often mars his work.
Newton seems so full-blooded and alive in her role, utterly compelling with an electric nerviness every moment she is on screen. As well, Union reveals a brittle steeliness that she more commonly masks with a certain sunniness. Here she somehow manages to be both cold and vulnerable at the same time. Both actresses have been wildly underserved by Hollywood and it speaks for itself that the best opportunities for either of them seem to be Tyler Perry movies.
If only someone could do the same for Perry himself. He comes across as wooden and insincere time and again in the film. Stripped of the broad strokes of his Madea character and tasked with being a real person, he seems to freeze up. Perhaps he simply spreads himself too thin as writer and director and star, but with his "Good Deeds" Tyler Perry seems not to have finished the job.