I admit that I'm always a little bit grumpy when a Tyler Perry movie doesn't feature Madea. She's important to my viewing experience, and as vital to Perry's ongoing, on-the-job, self-taught, directorial mission as, say, the "Woody Allen character" is to Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris. You probably learn more about Perry as an off-camera human being when you're viewing him through the filter of Madea than when he's playing a biological man.
But Madea only shows up in comedies (and also comedies that like to veer off the cliff and into the valley of old-time melodrama), never in straight-up dramas, and Perry's track record as a filmmaker who can shepherd an all-drama film to a satisfying conclusion is much spottier than his accomplishments as a director of raucous, lowbrow comedy. Seriously, who wants the dour, histrionic broccoli of For Colored Girls when the Funfetti cake of Madea's Big Happy Family is waiting to be devoured?
But the good news about Good Deeds is that this is where Perry turns a corner, because it's the best non-comedy he's ever made. The story of a rich CEO (Perry) chafing at his corporate family's expectations and a widowed single mother (Thandie Newton) caught in a spiral of poverty and bad luck, it's Perry's biggest leap forward in technical competence -- go look at those early, low-budget movies and be freshly shocked by how cheap and ugly they look -- and structural coherence.
And if his script leans into dullness and doesn't give anyone a lot of deeply resonant work to do, he's wise enough to stock his movies with supporting casts who are always way better than the material. Perry seems less comfortable with himself as a dramatic actor than as a comic one, but he knows himself enough to keep it low key. And when Newton takes a bite out of a script that calls for her to be emotionally desperate, she knows exactly how much effort it takes not to chew it up all at once.
Best of all Perry has, at least for this movie, abandoned most of his worst instincts. He refuses to paint any character as all good or all evil and difficult life situations aren't approached as if one half-baked conversation or a single visit to church will fix them. If you've followed his filmmaking career from the beginning until now, that's the equivalent of Bob Dylan picking up the electric guitar for the first time. And as a stop-gap until we get to see Madea's Witness Protection, it'll do just fine.