Earlier this year (2009), when his big screen comedy Madea Goes to Jail was exceeding all standard box office expectations, rumors had playwright/director/actor/industry Tyler Perry intent on finally "killing off" the gun toting, pot smoking, sassy old drag granny character once and for all. Even as totals approached $100 million in overall receipts, it was said that the Atlanta-based cultural phenom was "tired" or playing the bawdy battleaxe with a 'gansta' attitude. While we'll have to wait and see if the multi-faceted artist has the guts to go through with it, his first non-company creation, The Marriage Counselor, is just finishing up its tour of the urban revival circuit. As usual, it's been a massive hit with faith-based audiences of all races. It's no surprise then that Lionsgate taped the play's performance in Cleveland, Ohio for DVD release. What is unexpected is how overwrought and manipulative his material becomes when Mr. Brown, Cora, and that lovable, heat-packing old coot are nowhere to be seen.
Dr. Judith Jackson is an up and coming marriage counselor. It's taken a while, but her private practice is finally paying off - and that's good news for her hard working husband Roger. As the man who put her through school, bought and paid for her house and office building, and now takes care of both her displaced mother and his own weed head father, he's under a lot of pressure. Still, Judith spends the couple's money without a care, arguing that her burgeoning career will settle the debt. One day, in between sessions with a minister and his stripper wife and a young man no longer in love with his overweight spouse, Judith gets a visit from former flame - and current NBA multimillionaire - Ronald. He wants his old girlfriend back, and will stop at nothing to get her. Feeling neglected from all her husband's money-based nagging, Judith faces a tough decision. Of course, she is unaware of her potential paramour's troubled past - or what Roger will do if he finds out.
Combining the well worn witch hazel maxims of 'never looking a gift horse in the mouth' and 'physician - heal thyself' with his standard freestyle fire and brimstone, Tyler Perry's The Marriage Counselor suffers from what some might call a lack of recognizability. Sure, there's plenty of Hecksapoppin' horseplay between the cast, with most of the clear cut comedy coming from Judith's slang slinging white assistant Becky, and Roger's reefer obsessed pappy. In fact, there are times when it appears that Perry is almost overselling these characters' wicked way with an easy laugh. As with many of his works, The Marriage Counselor is a baffling, bifurcated experience. On the one hand, it's a standard morality play, easy to read characters going through the Biblical motions of faith, temptation, despair, and (hopefully) redemption. In between, there are fiery gospel shout-outs, references to old school soul, some tearful exchanges, and lots and lots of broad, almost burlesque humor. In a live setting, it's easy to get caught up in the chaos. It's audience participation as an evangelical extravaganza. At two hours and 23 minutes, it's a long haul for home video.
You see, the biggest problem with Tyler Perry's work remains its universal insularity. In essence, he's playing to an audience underserved by the major entertainment media and yet he does so in ways that almost anyone would recognize and enjoy. He's not merely fostering an African American fanbase. He's swinging for the same old sentiments that fueled a thousand Golden Era Tinsel Town dreams. If King Vidor or Douglas Sirk were young black men, these are the kind of shows they'd put on. Yet this means you have to be in sync with what he's trying to accomplish. If you're too cynical, or too hip for the medicine show mantras he's shilling, then you'll never be open to the Perry experience. That being said, The Marriage Counselor is a lot to swallow, even for the most fervent fans of the man's work. There's just too much of everything - social relevance (AIDS is the big bugaboo here), religious zeal (Jesus gets so many mentions he might as well get a Actors Equity credit), raucous ad-lib riffing (Roger's dad goes off on so many tangents he's like walking Geometry), and "told you so" admonitions (everyone if guilty of something in a Perry play).
What usually tempers his work is a visit from the Mann's - David and Tamala. They bring a real spiritual sense and jovial geniality to their outsized characters. Perry also has the potential of defusing such hyperbolic drudgery. All he has to do is put on the dress, sit on the set, stare at a particular player, and tear the person down piece and piece, and the audience forgets they're being pushed and preached to. While something similar happens here, The Marriage Counselor's cut-ups aren't as effective. They leave the crowd in stitches, but one senses that, upon exiting, they are satisfied, not wanting more. Sure, there are scenes that work out of sense memory (any confrontation or resolution has inherent drama) and when he wants to, Perry can provide the kind of Christian influenced insight that many trying to mimic but just can't muster. And yet with all that he has to offer, The Marriage Counselor feels obvious and overdone. While he's never been one for subtly and has been known to cram dozens of potential plotlines into a single show (sometimes, a single ACT), the lack of his former franchise faces really undermines Perry's ability to connect. This isn't awful. We just expect more from the man than this.
Even though this is a videotaped performance, the 1.33:1 full-frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understand camera angles, framing, and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for.
Equally important is the translation of the music and, it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo soars with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you forgive their failings. Of course, the one main issue that almost all these plays have is a lack of audience participation. Whoever handled the editing of this material minimizes the post-song applause and responses, always fading out just as the final note in played. These performers are exceptional and really earn their praise. We listeners at home should be able to hear it as well.
Unlike the digital packages that accompany his films, Perry's play DVDs are usually pretty paltry when it comes to added content. The Marriage Counselor is no exception. There is an interview featurette entitled "In Session", and a collection of company trailers. That's it. While it's nice to hear the cast wax poetic about their mentor and main paycheck provider, it's almost unnecessary.
This critic has actually been a big fan of Perry's, supporting his initial foray into filmmaking while thoroughly enjoying his seminal stage work. So this opinion comes from a position of perspective not pettiness - The Marriage Counselor is merely mediocre. It's not as good as the Madea plays, and it sinks several notches below such drag-less efforts as Why Did I Get Married? and the masterful Meet the Browns. Still, for those of you who love everything the man does, this is definitely a Recommended experience. Everyone else needs to go out and Rent It. After all, if Perry finally delivers on the rumored threats and puts Mabel "Madea" Simmons to rest once and for all, this will be the kind of material he plans on peddling. Of course, if he's smart, the one man entertainment conglomerate will play the prickly old matron until the wardrobe finally fades and falls apart. Success is a hard thing to earn in today's short attention span creative business model. At present, Tyler Perry can afford a Marriage Counselor or five. In the future, he may not be so lucky. Perhaps he should hold onto that oversized housecoat a few more years. He may need to ride its tattered tails.
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