Call it “The Tyler Perry Effect.” After all, you can’t make close to three quarters of a billion (with a “B”) dollars at the box office and not have everyone in Hollywood stand up and take notice – and this with an underserved demographic as your fiscal base and a one note act that sees a grown man dress in drag to deliver pro-God sermons and old school smackdowns. No one ever called Perry an auteur, but he continually manages to make watchable entertainment out of screaming, secrets, scandals, and stereotypes. He’s tapped into part of the Black experience in America that seems to have a more universe appeal than other artists working in a similar manner. A good example of this arrives this week, as The Best Man Holiday tries to tap into that now massive market fostered by Perry’s films. The original 1998 comedy may have been part of a beginning, but this seasonally themed sequel now has to play catch-up to madwo(man) Madea and the gang.
Granted, most of the material in Malcolm D. Lee’s likeable if ultimately unlucky offering is miles away from the hard knock urban setting Perry loves to play in. Most of the time, when dealing with the rich or affluent, the cultural phenom’s best move is to count them all as evil and be done with it. Also, Lee is not interested in the old “women are long suffering saints and men are dastardly pig-dogs” approach to character. Instead, a film like The Best Man Holiday mixes it melodrama with a bit more depth, if not more delight. Everyone involved here – author Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs), his wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan), former college love interest Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long), football player Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut), his wife Mia (Monica Calhoun), pal Julian Murch (Harold Perrineau) and his ex-stripper bride Candy (Regina Hall), and ladies man Quentin Spivey (Terrence Howard) and reality TV star Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) – is functioning beyond Perry’s traditional one (or maybe one and a half) dimension.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a wonky urban “comedy” without the melodramatic machinations. We have to have financial struggles (Harper), a first pregnancy (Harper again), self-doubt (Lance), a desire to, perhaps, finally settle down (Quentin) and of course, a viral video of something scandalous to mess up your otherwise fantasy married life (Julian). Toss in a pregnancy and a “secret” (which guarantees that one member of the cast may not make it to the last frame, terminally) and everything is in place to replicate the first film’s success. The only thing stopping The Best Man Holiday, aside from its own inherent issues, is the long, lingering shadow of Perry. Even back when raucous laughers like Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins tried to trump the comic Christian Crusader, few could find a way around him. By going directly at Perry though, Lee and his cast only create a chasm between what was fun in the past and what passes for entertainment now.
As a long time defender of Perry, it’s hard to hate on The Best Man Holiday. But it’s also an incredibly insular film, a folly that wants us to believe that the rich and affluent are prone to the same kind of problems that we everyday working folk find ourselves in. Sure, Harper is having difficulties making ends meet, but he’s not a struggling failure. His first book was a success, but it was also a fluke. Its author is now just realizing this, and with a kid on the way, such a wake-up call is warranted. And then there is the sex tape subplot. Granted, not everyone has to deal with sudden infamy, but when you marry someone whose life was initially lived in service of the scandalous, why be surprised when it comes home to roost? Can we relate to the spoiled diva antics of a Kardashian of color? Is a lothario still a legitimate male ideal circa 2013? These are questions Lee and The Best Man Holiday raise, and then drop.
At least Perry paints things in stark contrasts. His men are either noble or nasty, his women the long suffering central pillar of African America society or the loud mouthed tricks who turn men into mush before resetting their status to “baby daddy.” Nobility comes from the wise and the aged, even if one of them (another Perry persona, Joe) is more concerned with the carnal and the crude. The world of Madea and her minions is mired in a meaningful reliance on ’70s soul, ’60s struggles, and ’50s attitudes to children and their rearing. In that regard, The Best Man Holiday is like future shock. It’s perhaps too contemporary, too locked in being linked to today without relying on the past to propel its points.
And then there’s the whole Jesus angle. Perry is devout. Lee hides his penchant like a lapsed Catholic. Oh, it arrives, and when it does, such devotion sticks out like a sour sacred thumb. It’s as if the characters finally remember that they are baptized in the Word and not just using the Good Book as a frame of social reference. Sure, people have chided Perry for being so proactive when it comes to God, but that’s part of his allure. Melodramas are basically cautionary tales, and with the Lord on your side, it’s hard not to view such storylines as traditional battles between right and wrong. In The Best Man Holiday, the Commandments get nothing but lip service and for some outside the proposed demo, that may be good news indeed.
Still, there’s an underlying emotional resonance within all version of this tired film formula that eventually gets you reaching for a box of Kleenex. It’s as if, no matter the contrivances and coincidences, something about the people populating The Best Man Holiday that strikes you as sentimental…and then the waterworks start. It may just be a minor tear or two, but it’s still an indication that underneath all the bourgeois trappings, all the screenplay peccadilloes and absent reality leanings, we’ve connected with these characters and their outcomes really affect us. In this way, Malcolm D. Lee and Tyler Perry are a lot alike. One wanted to own the world – or at least his niche cinematic section of it. The other now does. The Best Man Holiday won’t change that, but on the other hand, without the first film, Perry may have never found his way out of a church auditorium.