If you're looking for reliability and knotty narrative dependability, Tyler Perry and his manipulative melodramatic play/screen writing will definitely deliver. In the mind of this post-modern entertainment evangelist, Jesus is the light and the way, men (especially within the African American community) are callous dogs, evil money grubbing wife beaters, or supermodel slick examples of sensitive studliness. On the other end of the gender spectrum, women are fierce yet fragile, capable of carrying themselves beyond the traumas of their stagnant social roles while still suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous male paternalism. Oh yes, they can be scrappy, screeching hose bags, but that's almost always because they are misguided and misdirected. And then there are the elderly, the farting, smoking, sinning, grinning, advice wielding founts of fictional reverence that always manage to keep a lid on things while dishing out wisdom worn of one too many Teddy Pendergrass songs. While many have accused him of pandering and playing to a racially insensitive lowest common denomination, Perry merely does what he knows will sell - and this initial box office bonanza gave him - and his lottery pick studio - all the support he needed.
Different from the original play, which had far more intricate twists and turns, Diary is still the story of Helen Carter (Kimberly Elise) and her no good successful lawyer of a pig hubby Charles (Steve Harris). On their 18th wedding anniversary, he admits an affair (and family) with a mistress and shows our soon to be down and out heroine the mansion door. Ending up at the house of her grandmother, Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Perry), Helen tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. She starts by getting a job and trying to make amends with her nursing home resident mother (Cicely Tyson) and crackhead sister Deborah (Tamara Taylor). She also starts a flirtation with hard working wonder Orlando (Shemar Moore). As the divorce continues, Charles is shot by a disgruntled client and paralyzed. Though she is advised not to, Helen decides to move back in with her future ex to "care" for him. Little does everyone know that she is really out for revenge, payback for all the rotten things her mean man did to her during their time together.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman wants to be the upscale The Color Purple so bad you can practically feel Oprah Winfrey fretting along the fringes, getting ready to kick some prejudiced white butt. From the "Dear Diary" lamentations to the dog-men/suffering African Amazon dynamic, this is the Tyler Perry by Way of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison Primer 101. Yes, he would further refine his melodramatics, discovering the inherent comedy gold in that brazen battleaxe Madea and he would introduce many more manipulative and wanton female figures as well. But this is where it all started, where Perry became the guardian for an underserved and underrepresented demographic. Critics can complain all they want to about the racial tone and temperament of how and what the various mixed messages may be, but in the end, Perry was one of the first (and even today, few) filmmakers of color to use the everyday experiences of his heritage as the core of his creative conceit. He isn't trying to upscale everything, or paint a portrait of posterity where none exists. Instead, he balances all elements of African America and delivers what he believes will make his point while making people laugh...and cry.
That all being said, Diary of a Mad Black Woman can't hold a grits-filled saucepan to later works like Madea's Family Reunion, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and what is perhaps Perry's best work of the type, Madea's Big Happy Family. This was the initial volley, the first steps out of the show business starting blocks. Exceptions had to be made, plotlines rewritten (especially when it comes to Orlando, Charles, his mistress, and Helen) in order to appear more 'mainstream.' Perry was often derided as being part of the offensively named "Chitlin' Circuit" and Lionsgate clearly wanted him diluted for the rest of the potential viewership. Thus Madea is more wise and less wicked (though she does brandish her gun more in this movie than in future installments), Uncle Joe given over to more silly, salacious slapstick material. Similarly, the conflicts are more clearly drawn, good and evil measured out in looks, attitude, approach, and characteristic. Charles is never really shown as completely repentant while Deborah is given a church choir redemption ala Suge Avery.
Additionally, Perry did not direct. That job went to Darren Grant, a music video ace responsible for many of the more memorable clips from the days when MTV still played them. Why one novice behind the camera was preferable to another is something for the studio to defend, but one thing is crystal clear - nobody knows his material better than Perry. Grant does a decent enough job, finding the right ways to make his characters seem believable and connected. But he does little with the Atlanta backdrop, failing to find any local color or flavor. Similarly, he does let his actors down from time to time. Elise looks lost in many scenes, clearly given over to reactions that her director let her get away with. Similarly, Grant seems more fascinated by the men than the women. They get the majority of the glamour shots. The gals come up looking plain and barely passable. While it may have been a planned ploy to make the paternalistic nature of the malfeasance seem more "attractive," and therefore defendable, it doesn't work. When Perry eventually took over, everything was in its right aesthetic place. Here, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is all over the map - and misses many major opportunities because of it.
There are certain things one has to remember about any average movie given the high definition treatment for a new format. Just because it says "Blu-ray" on the package doesn't mean it's doing to be a definitive presentation. Granted, the AVC encoded 1080p transfer looks much better than the DVD version, but that's not saying a great deal. Grant does very little with this film from a visual standpoint, so there's not much for the 1.78:1 widescreen image to work with. The colors are clear. The details are easily discernible. The compositions maintain their basic big screen shape. There are few defects to be seen (though the night sequences seem to have a weird near-artifacting tendency which is a tad disturbing) and the overall look is polished, professional, and highly presentable.
Since he doesn't rely as heavily as Perry does in his interpretation of this material, Grant's slim song selections come across nicely in the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Yes, there are still roaring gospel shakedowns (provided by the always amazing Tamala Mann) and at least one instance of awful lip syncing. The rest of the time, the speakers shiver with wonderful old school soul (the evocative tune "Dazz" by Brick gets a nice feature moment) while keeping the dialogue crystal clear. Without action sequences or other over the top aural bravado however, it's hard to completely champion this sonic choice.
Blu-ray's expanded space means that there is more room for added content here. Just our luck, we get two commentary tracks (a sparser one from Perry himself, a more indepth discussion between Grant and his star Elise), a slew of featurettes, outtakes, deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and a trailer. As for the specific mini-doc breakdown, Atlanta itself gets a shout out, Perry is the subject of at least three who/what/where overviews, as are the real angry black women who inspire his writing. There's also a look at the music, the play, and performers. The only negative element - all of this material is ported over from previous releases. As far as one can tell, there is nothing new offered for the Blu-ray update.
As something of a Tyler Perry "expert" (this critic has seen at least 95% of both his stage plays and theatrical films), yours truly can attest to the fact that Diary of a Mad Black Woman is not one of this artist's best. As a matter of fact, it is perfunctory Perry at best. It has its moments, but none of the madcap inverse insanity that makes his more recent work zing with "everyone wants to copy me" confidence. Still, this entire presentation - film and feature filled disc - is Recommended, simply because it shows where Perry came from. It establishes his "roots," so to speak. If you really want to be entertained fully, check out the DVD box set of his stage work. Those revival house happenings are something to behold. On film, Perry fiddles with what worked before to make it more "movie-oriented." In the case of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the adjustment was overblown...and unnecessary.
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