Three separate movies collide in this uneven but heartfelt drama of a woman done wrong who has to learn to rely on herself for the first time. The first movie is a soapy, syrupy, over-the-top “women suffering in fabulous clothes” drama, filled with welling eyes and swelling music, somewhere on the scale between Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) and the Lifetime Channel. The second movie is an over-the top revenge fantasy with scenes rivaling grand guignol like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. And the third is an over-the-top slapstick routine with a drag performance that makes Flip Wilson’s Geraldine look like Audrey Hepburn.
Helen (Kimberly Elise) understands that her wealthy husband Charles (Steve Harris) is all about surfaces; she is less aware of that quality in herself. He wins a prestigious attorney-of-the-year award and thanks her from the podium. When they are alone, however, he is cruel, rejecting her offer of a romantic evening and reminding her that he owns everything and she has nothing. Charles has cut her off from everyone and kept her inside the ostentatiously luxurious mansion like a princess in a tower.
Charles hires a truck to load Helen’s things and move her out of the house so that his mistress and their children can move in. Helen has nowhere to go. The handsome and sympathetic truck driver, Orlando (Shemar Moore), tries to help, but Helen is so angry and terrified she cannot accept it. Finally, she goes to her outspoken but generous-hearted grandmother, Madea, played by writer/producer Tyler Perry. Perry also plays Madea’s salty brother-in-law and Helen’s saintly cousin Brian.
Helen has to deconstruct her life and rebuild from the inside out. She gets a job as a waitress and visits her mother (Cecily Tyson) in a nursing home. She is at first angry with Orlando, then too proud to accept his help and unable to believe that any man could be good to her, but finally ready to give and accept love. Then Charles comes back into her life. This time he needs her. Helen has to decide what she wants and who she is.
But the movie never decides what it wants and what it is. It tries to have it both ways, asking us to root for Helen when she is a pious victim and a, well, “mad black woman.” It teeters unsteadily between crude humor and soulful faith.
Elise is a lovely actress who looks exquisite as she suffers and she makes the most of the soapy melodrama. Moore is an appealing knight in shining armor and Tyson, as always, adds some class. Perry’s wild caricature of a drag performance as Madea seems to be from an entirely different movie. If the movie had been written by white people, the portrayal would have been called racist, sexist, and just plain embarrassing. Perry’s old man is a one-joke dud, but his role as Brian shows some presence and conviction. One-note characters like the crack addict and the drug dealer probably worked better on stage but just seem cardboard-y on screen. Helen’s next diary entry just might be to wish for a better script.
Parents should know that the movie includes painful confrontations, violence (including shooting and assault), drinking, drug use, and sexual references. One strength of the movie is its unabashed portrayal of religious conviction as a mainstay for believers. Another is its depiction of the careful consideration and commitment that should be involved in deciding when to become sexually involved. The movie also benefits from its portrayal of strong and devoted women and African-American characters.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Helen was willing to give up so much of herself for Charles.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Waiting to Exhale and the novels of E. Lynn Harris. Perry’s other Madea plays are available on video. Families may also appreciate some other women-learning-to-get-over-the-loss-of-a-man-and-finding-themselves movies like Shoot the Moon, An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Sirk’s “suffering women in beautiful clothes” movies like Imitation of Life.