Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) has a perfect life. He's the CEO of a successful family business, has a lovely fiancée (Gabrielle Union), and a mother (Phylicia Rashad) and brother (Brian White) who love and support him. But as a filmmaker, Tyler Perry doesn't do "functional"--his movies are popular because they show a caricature of how people really act, like a less-funny version of Eddie Murphy's family cookout routine. What that means for one of Perry's starring roles outside of the Madea canon of films is that Wesley is a ship barely staying afloat on the Melodramatic Sea. He isn't in love with his lady, his mother makes reptiles look warm and cuddly, and his brother needs anger management classes. He is living for everyone else and true happiness eludes him, along with the knowledge of Tupac songs.
Subtlety isn't a part of this equation. Enter Lindsey (Thandie Newton), a single mother with a 6-year-old daughter Ariel (Jordenn Thompson). She may be newly homeless and make faces like she just caught a whiff of rotten milk, but Lindsey knows who Tupac is and--wouldn't ya know it--works as the night janitor in Wesley's huge building.
Even though anyone who has sat through a family drama or two can guess what's going to happen, Thandie Newton is the primary reason this movie elicits any kind of response at all. Her performance channels all the suffering of people desperately trying to stay afloat in our world, and her constant failure to maintain normalcy for her daughter is cripplingly sad. Even though her "angry" routine gets a little silly, watching her get attacked in a homeless shelter or having her daughter sleep in a storage closet is definitely not.
The plot of Good Deeds could have easily been dismissed as a repetitive back-and-forth between the upper and middle class, but just manages to escape that stigma not only thanks to Newton's sophistication, but also to everything else being just good enough. Brian White menaces everyone in his path, Phylicia Rashad gives dirty looks that could stop a charging rhinoceros, and Gabrielle Union just seems so sad. Against an aesthetically superior film as compared to his other work, and you almost don't miss Perry's grey wig. Almost.