Helen (Kimberly Elise) is living a good life — ensconced in a big white mansion in the ATL, she fills her closets with designer outfits and shares her bed with an upscale-lawyer husband. True, she’s been thinking about children for some time and Charles (Steve Harris) has been too distracted lately to follow through, and true also, Helen has lost touch with family members who live nearby. But that’s all right, she tells herself, because her life is a fairy tale. Anyone would want it.
It’s not long before the other shoe drops in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Charles announces that Helen has to move out, because, well, those beautiful new clothes in the closet aren’t hers, but his younger, light-skinned girlfriend Brenda’s (Lisa Marcos). In a word: cold. Helen is appropriately horrified and distraught, wondering for a minute whether she’s done something to contribute to this mess. But she’s soon encouraged to gather herself for payback by her ornery, weed-favoring grandmother Madea (one of the three characters played by screenwriter Tyler Perry, the others being Madea’s skirt-chaser brother Joe and Helen’s amiable cousin Brian). Hearing of baby girl’s troubles, Madea comes to help with her flamboyant exit. Armed with a pistol and a chainsaw, she deploys the latter to split the fancy furniture literally in half. In a scene currently circulating in the film’s promotional campaign, the camera pans the room post-Madea, sofa feathers settling and the piano collapsing into two pieces.
This moment demonstrates the film’s fondness for broad, obvious, and sometimes slow-moving comedy A first feature by music video director Darren Grant (Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” Jewel’s “Standing Still”), Diary follows Helen’s self-recovery, particularly as this process involves family and the community church. To start, she moves in with Madea, reunites with her assisted-living mother Myrtle (Cicely Tyson), gets a styling new haircut, and starts waiting tables at a restaurant. She also meets a new man, a factory worker named Orlando (Shemar Moore), also fresh off a bad breakup and showing himself each moment to be remarkably grounded and attentive (and pretty even if he does wear a bandana on his head in every scene). As she’s enticed by what seems the perfect man, Helen’s diary entries detail her doubts, rancor, and healing (“Dear diary: This man is fine… Please let him say something stupid”)
Orlando is also upfront about his spiritual commitment, a point that provides much of Diary‘s energy: he insists that his faith gives him strength and a sense of peace, and moreover that Helen deserves all the good that he embodies (he cuddles with her rather than pressing for sex, they spend quality montage time laughing and engaging in outdoors activities). Even aside from the beautiful leads’ romance, the film embraces a spiritual sensibility, as this grounds its most compelling story, that of writer/actor Tyler Perry.
Perry adapted the script from his popular stage play, one of seven he’s had produced since 1992 (the first being I Know I’ve Been Changed, and as of now, his works have earned some $75 million). Occasionally homeless in between largely self-financed productions, Perry soon became a Christian community favorite, recently tapped by Dallas’ Reverend T.D. Jakes to write the play version of Jakes’ own novel, Woman Thou Art Loosed, which was also filmed and released last year, and which also starred Elise. While the previous film took on a somber tone as it explored the enduring effects of a woman’s childhood abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, the new one careens between antic and grim, as Madea signifies an expansive, Big Momma sort of humor and Helen personifies a more patently melodramatic trajectory.
The film’s focus on these two versions of black women is occasionally troubling. (And that said, other women do appear, of course, including the brittle and wise mother Myrtle, the tight-dressed ho Brenda, and Brian’s estranged wife/Helen’s childhood friend Debrah [Tamara Taylor], currently a crackhead in serious need of redemption.) While Helen’s complications are made available in her voiceover, as well as in Elise’s nuanced performance (this even as she performs some very unsubtle acts of vengeance against the bad husband), Madea alludes to another sort of tradition.
On one hand, it’s overtly comedy as commentary, Dame Edna/Harvey Fiersteinish drag, exaggeration that pokes fun at wearying gender expectations. On another, it gestures toward the more recent performances by which men fulfill themselves, becoming better men through playing women, as in the cases of Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Martin Lawrence. But where the Lawrence performance in Big Momma’s House, for instance, allowed his undercover detective to capture the bad guy and win the girl, Perry’s incarnation brings something else, in that the comedy remains intact; Madea is not a means for some other character to become more finely masculine, but a way to model a raucous, powerful, but still jokey woman-ness for Helen.
Moreover, Perry’s impressive and occasionally daunting multiplicity recalls Eddie Murphy’s in the Klumps movies. Here, as with Murphy, the one-man-show aesthetic distracts from anything else that might be going on, including the Christian redemption story, Helen’s emotional or moral evolution, or even Charles’ own struggles. While Helen’s story is compelling, it’s subsumed by the men’s antics — from Charles’ egoism and dealings with gangsters to Orlando’s self-righteousness to Perry’s omnipresence. No wonder she’s so mad.