An ungainly hodgepodge of vaudeville-style comedy, turgid soap-operatics, and joyful epiphanies of gospel-flavored uplift, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" may appear to be based on an unworkable formula, but pic could wind up a sleeper success. Written by popular legiter Tyler Perry, whose plays have proven phenomenally popular with African-American auds in touring and regional productions, pic is pitched primarily (if not exclusively) to urban femmes yet has potential to score impressively as a long-legged crowd-pleaser.

An ungainly hodgepodge of vaudeville-style comedy, turgid soap-operatics, and joyful epiphanies of gospel-flavored uplift, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” may appear to be based on an unworkable formula, but pic could wind up a sleeper success. Written by popular legiter Tyler Perry, whose plays have proven phenomenally popular with African-American auds in touring and regional productions, pic is pitched primarily (if not exclusively) to urban femmes yet has potential to score impressively as a long-legged crowd-pleaser. Sturdy homevid biz should compensate for probable dearth of crossover theatrical prospects.

First-time feature helmer Darren Grant stresses sudser elements too insistently in opening scenes that introduce Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) as narrator and eponymous protagonist. On the very evening her lawyer-husband Charles (Steve Harris) is honored by peers in their Atlanta community, Helen is literally tossed out of their palatial digs after 18 years of marriage. Her wails and pleadings fall on deaf ears, since Charles already has picked out a younger — and, pointedly, more fertile — trophy wife-to-be (Lisa Marcos).

Mood lightens abruptly when Helen seeks refuge in the home of her beloved grandmother Madea, a trash-talking, pistol-packing firecracker played in outrageous drag by playwright/scripter Perry. (Think Martin Lawrence in “Big Momma’s House,” only more heavily padded and less feminine.) Madea offers heartfelt sympathy and blunt-spoken advice, suggesting that Helen get mad and get even.

Vertiginous mood swings continue throughout pic, as “Diary” lurches back and forth between domestic drama and cartoonish slapstick, sometimes shifting gears two or three times within a single sequence. Perry goes for gut-busting belly laughs in dual roles of Madea and Uncle Joe, Madea’s crotchety (and horny) brother. But actor-writer plays for keeps during serious turn in third a role: Brian, Helen’s cousin, who’s trying to raise his children as a single parent while estranged wife Debrah (Tamara Taylor) wallows in self-destructive cycles of drug abuse.

Like most other suddenly unmarried women in femme-skewing pics, Helen gets a new lease on life and love when she drops her defenses and embraces a hunky Mr. Right. But just when it appears she’ll be happily-ever-aftering with soul mate Orlando (Shemar Moore), Helen gets pelted with a third-act curveball: Charles is attacked by an unhappy client, and requires help to recover from paralyzing injuries.

Loudly enthusiastic responses at recent preview screening suggest “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” hits the bull’s-eye with its target demographic. Less empathetic auds may respond to spirited funny business, but remain unimpressed by melodramatic excesses, unremarkable production values and wildly uneven performances. It doesn’t help that more than a few players tackle heavily emotional scenes with overstated sincerity more appropriate to a special episode of a routine sitcom. Even vet Cicely Tyson, cast as Helen’s mom, isn’t at the top of her game here.

Some problems might be attributable to Grant’s relative inexperience as director of actors. (He comes to project with background primarily in music vids and commercials.) But, material likely would have defeated even the best efforts of a vet helmer to sustain a consistency of tone and style.

And the prominence of an obviously cross-dressing thesp in central role will keep many from taking pic seriously. “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” doesn’t call for mere suspension of disbelief. Rather, it demands that disbelief be wrestled to the ground and chloroformed.

Even so, pic can be appreciated as a genuine hoot by more indulgent auds, and may play particularly well with those who experience shocks of recognition while enjoying themselves.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Lions Gate Films, Diary of a Woman Inc. presentation in association with BET Pictures of a Lions Gate Films/Diary of a Woman Inc. production in association with Reuben Cannon. Produced by Cannon. Executive producers, Michael Paseornek, John Dellaverson, Robert L. Johnson. Co-producer, Mike Upton. Directed by Darren Grant. Screenplay, Tyler Perry, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), David Claessen; editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire; music, Elvin D. Ross, Tyler Perry; production designer, Ina Mayhew; set decorator, Joseph Litsch; costume designer, Keith Lewis; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Jim Hawkins; assistant director, Roger Bobb; casting, Reuben Cannon, Kim Williams. Reviewed at Edwards Marqu*e Cinema, Houston, Feb. 16, 2005. (Also in Pan-African Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Helen McCarter - Kimberly Elise Charles McCarter - Steve Harris Orlando - Shemar Moore Debrah - Tamara Taylor Brenda - Lisa Marcos Tiffany - Tiffany Evans Myrtle - Cicely Tyson Brian/Madea/Uncle Joe - Tyler Perry
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