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Mon, 27 Feb 2012
By Thomas Leupp
Actor-director-mogul Tyler Perry didn't come to preside over a vast media empire by paying much heed to the tastes of critics. His 10 feature-film releases to date – churned out over an eight-year span – have drawn mostly jeers from reviewers, with his Madea comedies, starring Perry in drag as a tough-talking southern matriarch, singled out for special scorn. His latest effort, the romantic drama Good Deeds, isn't likely to change many minds, but it's not for lack of effort from co-star Thandie Newton, whose performance a struggling single mother stands out amidst the film's otherwise crudely wrought melodrama.
Trading his Madea getup for the less-familiar guise of a leading man, Perry stars as Wesley Deeds, the scion of a wealthy family and whose lofty expectations have begun to wear on him. Beneath his sheen of polished affluence exists a man who draws little satisfaction from running Deeds Inc., the software giant his father built, and who tires of shouldering the demands of his overbearing mother (Phylicia Rashad), the burden of his bellicose and oft-intoxicated bother (Brian White), and the monotony of his loveless engagement to his similarly well-bred fiancé, Natalie (Gabrielle Union).
Trapped in a stultifying routine seemingly mapped out for him at birth, Wesley longs to escape his gilded prison and trek across Africa on a Harley, digging wells with his college buddies. Seriously, that's his dream: digging wells on a Harley.
Situated firmly on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum is Lindsey (Newton). Left alone to provide for her daughter after the death of her soldier husband in Iraq, she has little time for fanciful visions of Harley-riding and well-digging. She's too busy trying in vain to make ends meet as a janitor at … you guessed it: Deeds Inc. Despite her lowly status, Lindsey clings fiercely to her independence, which places her in stark contrast to Wesley.
Fate all but demands that Wesley and Lindsey make a match, but not before their respective plights are established – and re-established – over a prolonged and laborious set-up that drowns in tedious exposition. (The majority of the dialogue in Good Deeds is devoted to affirming the obvious.) The desperate nature of Lindsey's situation in particular is driven home with wearisome repetition, in scene after scene depicting her various indignities suffered at the hands of the System. Newton, an actress of impressive range and dexterity, brings dignity and pathos to a role that probably asks too much of her.
A more efficient filmmaker might have trimmed a half-hour from Good Deeds' first half without compromising its story one iota, but, then again, that would only hasten the descent into soap-opera hysterics that marks the film's second half.
The potential exists in Good Deeds for a thoughtful examination of class divisions within the African-American community – a topic that Perry, who rose from poverty to become Hollywood's highest-paid entertainer, is uniquely equipped to explore – but what we get instead is an overwrought hybrid of aristocratic melodrama and How Wesley Got His Groove Back.
An artless aesthetic and narrative inconsistencies attest to the hastiness of the film's assembly. In one scene, Natalie's flamboyantly effeminate male friend (played, inexplicably, by comedian Jamie Kennedy) complains that she's never even mentioned her fiancé, let alone introduced them. Yet, when he encounters Wesley in quite literally the next scene, they appear as if longtime acquaintances. It's a problem that could have been easily fixed by a quick re-shoot or two, but I suspect Perry was already too preoccupied with work on The Marriage Counselor – arriving in theaters less than six months from now – to bother with them, if he worried about the issue at all. And if he doesn't care, then why should we?
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