It’s probably no coincidence that Tyler Perry chose this week, just days before the release of his latest film, “Nobody’s Fool,” to make the announcement that he is planning to retire Madea, the rowdy, blaring, acid-tongued, tiny-pistol-toting church lady from hell who will dress down anyone under the Atlanta sun who crosses her. The madly exuberant matriarch, who will be making her final screen appearance in 2019, has always been the spark plug — the anarchic TNT — of Perry’s comedies. And that makes you wonder: Will he now be looking for surrogate performers to replace that energy?
Of course he will — and, in fact, he has already found one. In “Nobody’s Fool,” Tiffany Haddish, with her unchecked rage and triumphant lewd abandon, plays the first Tyler Perry character who could stand glare to glare, threat to threat, uncorked insult-from-the-hood to uncorked insult-from-the-hood to Perry’s gale-force grandma in drag. She’s like Madea as a young criminal scamp (a movie I’ve always thought Perry should make). But in “Nobody’s Fool,” Tiffany Haddish is just furious and funny enough to make you wish that the rest of the movie wasn’t a droopy romantic comedy without the comedy.
She plays Tanya, the abrasive, ne‘er-do-well, shoot-off-her-mouth ex-con sister of Danica (Tika Sumpter), an impeccably groomed and status-conscious New York advertising executive who tries to control every single aspect of her life in a way that’s so stultifying you realize the only place you’ve ever seen a character this inhumanly meticulous and over-organized is in a paint-by-numbers movie. But when Sandra Bullock used to do this sort of thing, it was meant as a joke. Tika Sumpter, with android hair parted down the middle and a smile that flicks on and off like a faulty neon sign, is dead serious playing a woman who needs to wake up from illusions that the audience can see through in 30 seconds.
Early on, she goes to retrieve Haddish’s Tanya, a former crack addict and petty criminal who’s getting out of prison after having served five years. When Danica shows up, Tanya is already banging a stranger in the parking lot, and Haddish just takes off from there. “All this s—t is yours?” she asks Danica after one look around her designer apartment, where she’s planning to crash. “You didn’t have to give up your ass?” In “Nobody’s Fool,” it’s that insistence on the ho’s-eye-view of the world that gives Haddish’s line readings their nasty combative edge. Her Tanya is ignorant and domineering, selfish and lusty, and proud of it. It’s all a survival tactic (you can’t put someone down who’s already done the work for you), but Haddish turns hood ‘tude into a form of verbal hellfire. Like Madea, she’s an agent of chaos, though in this case her main function is to smash open the contrivances of the plot.
Each morning, before going up to her office, Danica stops into a coffee place owned by Frank (Omari Hardwick), the bearded and gentle-eyed chivalrous dreamboat behind the counter, who always gives her a free coffee (and, sometimes, a rose) and wastes no time helping her out by hiring Tanya as a barista. But Danica, you see, already has a boyfriend — a man named Charlie she met on-line and has been “dating” for a year, even though she’s never laid eyes on him. He works on an oil rig, and keeps telling her that there’s no wi-fi out there; he can’t even talk to her on Skype. Clearly, there’s something wrong with this picture, but it takes Tanya to come up with the theory that Danica is being catfished — and, in fact, Tanya emails the hosts of “Catfish: The TV Show,” Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, who uncover what appears to be the imposter pretending to be Charlie. (He’s played by an unbilled famous comedian, under a mass of Jheri Curls, in a cameo that’s working to be funnier than it is.)
So after all this, what’s stopping Danica from getting together with the adoring hunky Frank? She learns that he served seven years in prison for armed robbery, and is also a recovering addict, and that sets off a red flag for her. But it’s really a red flag of snobbery. “Nobody’s Fool” is a movie about a nose-in-the-air corporate control freak who must learn to accept the damaged legacy — and, implicitly, the racially driven pain — of her beau, and also her sister.
It’s another Tyler Perry film with a lot of lessons, and I don’t want to come off like I’m looking down on that (which I don’t), but good lessons don’t necessarily add up to a good movie. Not even when Whoopi Goldberg pops up to steal a few scenes as Danica and Tanya’s perpetually stoned-out-of-her-gourd mother. “Nobody’s Fool” is about a woman who ends up having to see through a series of fools, including herself; she’s got to climb down off her high horse. There’s a tradition of that in romantic comedy, but it’s one that thrives on characters who have more charm — less high-strung neurotic astringence — than Sumpter’s Danica. Next time, it would be great to see a character like Tiffany Haddish’s Tanya get all the good lines, and all the romantic emotionalism too. Put another way: What would it look like if a young Madea melted?