Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Endless Tyler Perry

I have never seen a Tyler Perry film in its entirety. I’ve viewed every theatrical trailer of his feature films. These endeavors are occasionally purposeful but mostly by force in a dark crowded theater when it would have been arduous to mosey out.

The dark horse box office candidate is no longer a dark horse, standing apart and often dominating ticket receipts during the year’s weakest months. Take this year – two Tyler Perry films were released – in February and this weekend in September. The two absolute worst box office months of the year (not including January because of the Oscar film carryover). And these films perform extremely well despite the fact that mainstream critics and audiences seem to be turning the other cheek.

His seventh feature film I Can Do Bad All By Myself, in theaters Friday, is based on one of Perry’s earliest plays. In the film, Madea (Perry) catches a 16-year-old girl and her younger brothers robbing her home and decides to send the children to their only relative, Aunt April, an alcoholic nightclub singer (Taraji B. Henson).

Aside from a cameo in Star Trek, Perry stays committed to his own insular projects, having produced two sitcoms, written 10 plays and established his own studio in Atlanta. Knocking out two movies a year, he and his assembly line of stock situations wrapped in moral rhetoric never cease to generate profit.

Like a wall of National Lampoon’s straight-to-DVD films on the N shelf of a video store, the T section now bears a potent stench. How did one man gain this much control?

Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, which came out in February this year, grossed $90 million. On Rotten Tomatoes, it scored a 31 percent; and its user rating on IMDb is a dismal 3.3/10. The film’s biggest selling point for a gentleman like myself, who stands outside the exclusive TP circle, was that Madea would finally be handcuffed, restrained and locked away. This ain’t an Ernest comedy. It was time to say goodbye.

Though the box office numbers are growing, a steadily decreasing number of critics are even taking time to review the films for national publications. The total critic count, beginning with Madea’s breakout Diary of a Mad Black Woman, has gone from 106 to 43.

Granted, an audience exists for these films, one significantly larger than the unequivocal niches it appeals to.

Critics castigate Perry’s films for being melodramatic and monotonous populist propaganda. Only a small but significant constituency keeps coming back.

Every February and every September, I commend Perry for finding a way to disguise his Madea sequels as a set of episodic stories that consistently draws patrons willingly to the multiplex, generating over $400 million.

But I’ve yet to understand its appeal. At what point does a cult transmogrify into mainstream activism? And how could one overthrow its churning out of poorly made films in the name of democracy and decency?

Grading Tyler Perry ... based on the titles alone

I Can Do Bad All By Myself (September 2009) - With Taraji B. Henson. A-
Madea Goes to Jail (February 2009) – $90 million. With Derek Luke. B+
The Family That Preys (September 2008) – $37 million. With Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard. C
Meet the Browns (March 2008) – $41.9 million. With Angela Bassett. D
Why Did I Get Married? (October 2007) – $55 million. With Janet Jackson and Jill Scott. C-
Daddy’s Little Girls (February 2007) – $31.3 million. With Gabrielle Union and Idris Elba. D+
Madea’s Family Reunion (February 2006) – $63.3 million. With Blair Underwood. C+
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (February 2005) – $50.4 million. With Kimberly Elise. B-

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