Trying to come up with an analogy for my relationship with the movies of Tyler Perry, I can only compare it to how I imagine Paul Thomas Anderson felt about Adam Sandler before casting him in Punch-Drunk Love: there’s a deep level of admiration and enjoyment that comes from watching somebody who occasionally – and almost always unintentionally -- strikes upon a bizarre sort of genius.
Truthfully, I haven’t seen all of Perry’s movies, and I can’t defend all of those I have seen, or defend the entirety of the ones I can defend at all. But after watching the opening scene of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, it seemed impossible to deny that he isn’t doing something – quite a few things, in fact – as well or better than just about anyone in Hollywood. And with the release of his new film, Tyler Perry’s Temptation, a championing of his considerable – and substantive – oeuvre is long overdue.
First of all, and perhaps least defensibly, he’s commercial. Mind you, that’s certainly no measure of artistic quality – more bad movies have become box office successes than good ones – but there is something to be said for trying, and more importantly, succeeding to appeal to a broad, mainstream viewership. Notwithstanding the premise of something like Madea’s Witness Protection, his are stories about real (or, okay, in the case of Madea, “real”) people, blue- and white-collar individuals who struggle with everyday, relatable problems, including paying their bills, managing personal and professional relationships, mending family rifts, and employing spirituality in the solving of their problems.
Moreover, Perry’s movies are made for adults, in more ways than one. If Grown Ups or Paul Blart: Mall Cop get to exist, and make a mint off of audiences eager to laugh, then why shouldn’t Perry’s films also take home a slice of that pie? Especially since beyond the shenanigans that Madea gets into, virtually all of his characters are dealing with markedly grown-up issues: in Big Happy Family, the matriarch is diagnosed with cancer, and her shrewish daughter turns out to have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse; in Good Deeds, a single mother fights to keep a janitorial job that provides her with just enough money that she and her daughter can stay out of homeless shelters; and in Temptation a relationship therapist struggles to keep the spark going in her own marriage while trying to earn enough money to start her own counseling practice.
What’s more interesting about these themes, and these ideas, is that they are seldom wrapped up in a neat bow at the end, or dealt with via the sort of wish fulfillment that audiences demand (or more accurately, filmmakers insist upon). The yo-yoing melodrama of Big Happy Family is interrupted by absolutely raw and real showdowns between competing siblings, and while their frustration and animosity for one another is temporarily abated, the idea that familial love resolves all things doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily walk away still liking one another. In Perry’s films, he excels at highlighting problems, finding their roots, and then providing his characters – and by extension, the audience – with the tools to solve them. It’s admittedly less an open-endedness than a hopeful ambiguity that gives his films a sense of uplift and inspiration, because the characters stared deep into the darkness of their issues, admitted they plagued them, and decided to make an effort to repair or relieve them.
And this touches upon what is probably the most important, and most amazing achievement Perry regularly accomplishes: he uncovers, and highlights, real, honest moments of human interaction, in a way that almost no other filmmaker is doing today. Big Happy Family sparked this discovery for yours truly, during a scene in which Madea talks to a relative in a scene of casual conversation, where she admits (1) she’s not a devout Christian, (2) she’s a sinner, and (3) it takes some good old-fashioned common sense in order to resolve some of the problems that are niggling at the family over which she’s presiding. Later in that film, two sisters disrupt a family meal with an argument that spills years and years of built-up resentment, and Madea insists that the rest of the family simply let it happen. This isn’t merely a dramatic device to allow an emotional crescendo, it’s a moment of nakedly honest recognition that terrible things sometimes need to be said in order to get past the pain with which they’re associated.
Although I’m not much of a fan of Madea’s Witness Protection, there are similar scenes of unvarnished truth. Denise Richards plays a stepmother struggling to relate to her husband’s teenage daughter, and Madea is outraged that she allows the girl to speak so disrespectfully to her in front of others. While her solution is to (cartoonishly) affect some of the sass that Madea uses on an ongoing basis, her point is very real: the teenager needs boundaries and discipline, and to fail to stand up to her as a parental figure will only be to the detriment of that relationship, and the girl’s relationships as she matures.
His tackling of cultural and racial issues is similarly insightful: also in Witness Protection, the accountant (played by Eugene Levy) who hides out in Madea’s home is the tip of an enormous iceberg of economic disparity – an embodiment of the privilege and isolation of corporate greed. Literally confronted with the faces of the people whose money he was complicit in losing, Levy’s character is forced to acknowledge his responsibility in the degradation of lower-income communities, or at the very least, repay some of the money of theirs that he lost. And further, there’s a scene in the film which features one of the most amazing and truthful conversations about race and language in the last decade, where Madea, provoked by a white person’s use of the term “colored,” offers a brief sermon on the hypersensitivity to ethnocentric language – on all sides of the ethnic spectrum.
Temptation is by far Perry’s most moralistic film in a while, but it never fails to make those same observations about human nature and its emotional meaning. After a husband discovers that his wife has been cheating on him, he makes a pass at one of his female coworkers who offered him emotional comfort. As he tries to kiss her, she gently pushes him away, pointing out, “We are not attracted to each other,” and then explaining how his attempt for that physical connection is a representation of his desire to cover up the pain he’s feeling with some other sensation. In a cinematic world of one-plus-one romantic pairings where couples join together with numeric precision, such an observation is a revelation, and demonstrates that the woman’s character has not only self-awareness, but the empathy and strength to correct him in a way that shows him – and us – that solutions to problems are not as simple as changing who we’re with. And even though the film’s ultimate “wrath of God” attitude about transgression sort of narratively necessitates a downer ending, Perry manages to offer a sense of hope without ignoring the fact that there are repercussions to our behavior, and ones that we may have to live with the rest of our lives.
There are other reasons why Perry is spectacularly underrated, such as the fact that he frequently makes not just men, but women of color the focus of his stories, and casts unfortunately under-utilized actresses with great talent and empowers them to make that talent shine. (The same is true of the men in his movies – Temptation’s Lance Gross and Robbie Jones are both handsome and talented, and deserve more and better roles in the future.) But ultimately, it’s as much of a shock to me as it is to his many detractors that he leaves such an indelible impression upon me, because it’s what he offers to cinema that only highlights what is lacking elsewhere: honest, human, adult stories, with keenly observed, sincerely felt and deeply insightful moments in them.
That the alternative is rom-com garbage about men and women in perfect jobs looking for perfect relationships – and invariably finding them -- is a testament to our increasing desire for empty-headed wish fulfillment. What Tyler Perry, amazingly, incisively and so often entertainingly tells us is that we’re all the same – we all have problems, we all struggle, and finding solutions are seldom easy. But most reassuringly, he also says those solutions are almost always within our grasp. And the fact not only that he grasps that idea, but repeatedly utilizes it to such powerful effect, shows that whatever sort of genius he demonstrates, intentional or not, should not be ignored.