Want to know where madcap matriarch Madea originated? Judge Bill Gibron says there's no better place to start than this DVD of one of Tyler Perry's earliest plays.
Our review of I Can Do Bad All By Myself (Blu-Ray), published January 21st, 2010, is also available.
When Madea goes off the deep end, it's a short trip.
When Mabel "Madea" Simmons is taken ill, her family rallies around her. Living with her are Vianne, her divorced granddaughter; Bobby, a young man fresh out of prison, and her great granddaughter, the child of Madea's other granddaughter Maylee. Soon, visitors start arriving, including Cora, Madea's oldest daughter, and the M.I.A. Maylee, who has brought along her fiancé—Anthony, Vianne's ex. Next-door neighbor Mr. Brown is always stopping by to snoop as well as celebrate his faith in Jesus, and with a garden of marijuana growing out back, the police are never far from Madea's curb. Tensions erupt between the sisters as each one deals with her own individual issues: Vianne with the engagement, and Maylee with her distant 14-year-old daughter. It will take a few strong words from that wise (and somewhat wicked) elder to bring peace, love, and a sense of harmony to a family that is used to saying I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself is the first Madea show ever created by Tyler Perry. It's the first play ever to feature the pot-smoking, gun-toting, 68-year-old maverick, and you can definitely tell. Not in a bad way—Perry seems almost incapable of not entertaining an audience with his preaching and pratfalls. No, the difference between I Can Do Bad All By Myself and something like Madea's Family Reunion or Madea's Class Reunion is that our elderly scene-stealing shrew is not quite a star yet. Perry is yet to understand her power as a voice of ghetto glam and realistic reason. As a result, Madea is just a supporting player here, not the front-and-center catalyst of everything that will appear in later works. Indeed, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is far more dramatic and emotional than Perry's other plays, since the interfamilial struggles are the main thrust of the narrative.
For those looking to see where Perry came from (the strictly Christian world of standard urban theater or what some insensitively call the "chitlin' circuit"), this newfangled format mixing fun with a gospel message, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, is a good place to start. It is no different than Perry's other stage shows, in theory. We still get mega-melodrama, over-the-top comedy, healthy helpings of good old-time religion and several sensational showstopping songs to lead the way. But instead of riffing on what is currently popular, obsessing on The Color Purple, and ad-libbing his way through a myriad of asides and one-liners, Perry is trying to be a performer here. Madea always takes her role of matriarch seriously, but in I Can Do Bad All By Myself, she seems even more focused. Hints of a less-than-successful marriage are offered, and Madea even laments the loss of a daughter, one who we learn had a drug-addled, prostitution-paved path to certain self-destruction.
Certainly, Perry has entertained these themes elsewhere. Family Reunion rested on revelations of molestation and abuse, while Class Reunion dealt with adultery and domestic violence. Using God as a guide to a better way of life, and struggling to distinguish between saved, sanctified, and stoic, a Perry production can be an overly arch and arcane experience. You may recognize some of these people, but the author mixes in so many variables and so much shtick that you often can't tell where the real truth is. Some have even accused the playwright of dabbling in stereotypes for the sake of silly humor. Frankly, there is no such archetyping in I Can Do Bad All By Myself. No one here seems obvious or overly flamboyant—not even Mr. Brown, whose bad fashion sense and even more messed-up social skills can't corrupt what is a genuine and genial man. He may seem like a buffoon, but that's just because Perry sets him up to be the visual humor in his showcase. Madea will make all the jokes, Brown will handle the physical farce.
As with many of his shows, there is a main message here. In Class Reunion, it was forgiveness. In Family Reunion, it was the power of prayer and togetherness. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself, the author wants to combine sex education, falling away from the church, and individual dignity as his main selling points. He then moves off onto other tangents, like superficiality, stubbornness, and outright stupidity. Madea is not one to mince words, and she often acts like the jive Jiminy Cricket to her family's flawed Pinocchio. Yet the problems she's dealing with here—unwanted pregnancy, parental neglect, and sibling rivalry—appear trivial compared to the painful problems of other shows. It is almost as if Perry is experimenting with I Can Do Bad All By Myself, seeing how far he can push the heightened drama without losing his audience. Honestly, with a character as strong as Madea, he can shove fairly hard (as his recent revues have proved) and still keep them good and happy.
While it's not quite the crowd pleaser of his other works, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is definitely the blueprint for the Perry success that would eventually change the face of urban gospel theater. One thing that is obvious, despite all the criticism he usually faces, is that if Perry ever put his mind to it, he probably could create a serious drama that doesn't require a wisecracking old coot or a bumbling bald stooge as comic relief to sell his sentiments. As with any writer, Perry's power is in his ability to observe. While his plots may be pat and his situations simply solved, they don't ring false or fake. Tyler Perry understands the black experience. That he channels it in such an outrageous manner is part of his charm.
This is a lesser DVD presentation than the other titles in the Tyler Perry Collection. Part of the problem comes from the technical troubles the company came across when putting on the show. The theater flooded, the power went out, and performances were cancelled. The first filming was so dark that Perry refused to use it. So the image we have on this digital version of the production is a second-go-around, and it's still pretty uneven. The lack of rehearsal means that there are some sketchy camera angles, and the overall feeling is rushed and hurried. The 1.33:1 full frame image has some flaring and bleeding issues, but it's not too terrible considering how it was created. As usual, the aural elements are just fine. Perry prides himself on having sensational sound in his shows, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself is no exception. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 is clear and dynamic, especially when the singers scat and soar up and down the scales.
The usual Tyler Perry Collection bonus features are presented here, with one clear exception. Typically, the "new" introduction is 10 seconds of salutation, and the DVD commentary culls a few specific scenes over which Perry provides minimal insight. Aside from the trailers and photo gallery, the best extra element here is the 40 minutes of "bonus footage" which consists of Perry discussing the production troubles, talking to disappointed audience members, signing autographs, and answering questions from fans. This is an amazingly insightful compendium. We get to see Perry outside the show-business setting as he walks us through a typical day, and even discusses his love life—if ever so briefly. The most interesting bit may be the anti-Cribs style stroll through his home. Perry is humble about the massive estate his success has bought him, and the house is very impressive. When he discusses its importance to him, you realize that Perry wishes he could spend more time there, not just use it as luxurious proof of his power and achievement.
For the look at his life alone, the DVD version of I Can Do Bad All By Myself is worth a walk-through, especially for fans new to the entire Tyler Perry experience. Others may want to wade through Madea's other installments before diving into this far more serious show. While it's uplifting and enlightening, this is still Perry-lite, an offering from a man coming to terms with his talent and trying to balance out everything that comes with such a decision. As usual, such a search bears gems both precious and paltry
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