Monday, 8 February 2016

The Single Moms Club: I saw a Tyler Perry movie

At a time when visibility in Hollywood is on everyone's minds, when minority filmmakers and actors are finding themselves pigeon-holed like never before, Tyler Perry's place in pop culture is singularly frustrating.

Tyler Perry is an independent filmmaker-entrepenuer who has built a media empire off the back of a series of comedies and dramas featuring a bevy of contemporary African American actors. Talents as diverse as Idris Elba, Michael Jai White, Taraji P. Henson, Janet Jackson and Kathy Bates have appeared in his films, most of which have struck a chord (and box office gold) with African American audiences. Perry also acts in most of his films, and also appears in other popular features: If the name sound familiar, you might recognise him as Ben Affleck's smooth lawyer from Gone Girl

Perry has been very successful, and is a genuinely talented actor (his performance in Gone Girl is award-worthy). His self-produced work on the other hand...

Perry's movies can broken roughly into two types. The most successful of these films have been his comedies, featuring the deranged but loveable(?) Madea, played by Perry himself in drag. The others are his melodramas, generally about middle class families and their personal issues. While Perry's comedies are broad and silly, his melodramas are the complete opposite,  with an incredibly dark view of humanity, and a disturbing (to this viewer, at least) sense of morality. 

It's a worldview so disconnected from the present that his movies occasionally feel like they were made by a time travelling preacher from 1955. Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counsellor, for example, is about a marriage counsellor who, bored with her square of a husband, has an affair with an internet billionaire. Of course, she realises the error of her ways when it turns out he is a deviant with a violent temper who has given her AIDs. The movie ends with her alone, while her ex-husband enjoys a new life with a new sexy young wife and baby. It's a real heart-warming story (with added Kim Kardashian). Temptation is on its way toward some deranged kind of cult status, with the podcast How Did This Get Made dedicating an episode to this strangely dour film.

The Single Moms Club was released in 2014, and, as of 2016, is Perry's last theatrically released feature. Having never seen a Tyler Perry movie before (and remembering Spike Lee's criticism of Perry), I decided to give it a shot and boy... it was something.

This movie is Tyler Perry's attempt to appeal to women. If that sentence has not sent you running for the hills... this movie is for you, I guess?

If you don't know anything about 'single moms', this movie will teach you three things:

a) Single mom-ing is hard

b) It's so hard, you better get a man  

c) Men also suck. But see B for instructions.

c) Latino people only live, work and hang out at Mexican restaurants

This movie is bad -- and I mean, gloriously bad. I have not laughed so hard in a long time. No real comedy has had this effect on me in years. I also have not felt so bad for a movie's cast.

Nia Long is the lead, I think. She comes top of the cast list, but her screen time is about the same as the others. Like everyone else in this movie, she's a good actress trying her damnedest to make something out of this material. She does an okay job, all things considered, but the script has her character in a headlock that prevents her from exercising any kind of agency: when she tries to strike out on her own, she almost loses her kid. She then gives up on her dream of being published, and it takes another character to fulfil her dream.

Amy Smart's career has been on the downturn for awhile, but she is better than this. She gets stuck playing this rich housewife who has to cut back on her expenses and lose the maid who raised her daugh -- Oh god, I just don't care. Anyway, she's in this movie.

Cocoa Brown plays the sassy working class black woman, Lytia. She might have the best role in the movie, but that's not saying much considering she is playing another caricature: a single mother who cannot control her kids without a man around to provide... something. Speaking of the 'man' in her life, I don't know what Terry Crewes is doing in this movie. He basically spends the whole movie aggressively hitting on Brown until he literally has her against a car door, when she finally relents. This scene and Brown's character as a whole are strong examples of what Spike Lee, Jamilah Lemieux and even Idris Elba have taken issue with: the way Perry's films perpetuate stereotypes about African Americans.

For some reason unknown to god or man, the very talented comedienne Wendi McLendon-Covey is also in this movie. Guess she needed to do some renovations on her house. She plays a cold career woman with no time for relationships or her daughter. By the way, her character's name is Jan Malkovitch -- Jan MALKOVITCH. That goes beyond lazy.

Out of this whole mess, the one I feel the most sorry for is Zulay Henao. Not only is she stuck playing another thankless Latina role (a recently divorced woman who is being blackmailed into celibacy by her asshole ex-husband, who will kick her out of her house if he finds out she is seeing anyone), she is currently reprising her character in the spinoff TV show in which they retcon her sweet immigrant boyfriend so that he turns out to be involved with South American drug cartels ('cause all Latinos have something to do with drugs, right?).

This movie is so shoddily executed, but in such a specific way that feel totally Tyler Perry. All of Perry's movies  feature flat lighting and simple camera setups that make his films feel alternately like a 90s sitcom or a CW show. This one is no different -- just a bunch of good looking people in bland locations shot in a completely boring and un-cinematic way.

The blocking in this movie is completely insane. There are dialogue scenes which consist entirely of talking heads, and then Perry will end the scene from a completely different angle that reveals a bunch of new characters that have been there the entire time. It's like that joke from Arrested Development, where Lucille Bluth tears Michael a new one and then the camera zooms out from a two shot to reveal a room full of people. It's as funny as that, but completely unintentional.

The other thing that stands out (if it was not already obvious) is Perry's complete ignorance of how the world works.

Prime example: Publishing. Nia Long's character has written a book, but she cannot get it published. McLendon-Covey's character works in publishing, finds the manuscript and A FEW DAYS LATER presents Long with a finished hard copy and a big publishing deal. Now I do not know a lot about publishing, but I do know the first thing you need is the author's permission -- not to mention the time it would take to proof, format, print and bind an entire run.

Oh, if you're wondering what the plot is: there isn't one. These four ladies form a club and stuff  just kind of sorts itself out.

Final verdict? This movie is absolute garbage, and it has some sequences which are absolute howlers, but ultimately it just feels incredibly depressing. It speaks to the dire state of women's roles in Hollywood that such a drought of good characters has brought this film's ensemble together. There are plenty of unintentional laughs to be had here, but the sad truth it reveals about Hollywood makes those chuckles ring hollow.

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