It was recently announced that Tyler Perry, he of Madea and gospel based morality plays' fame, is the richest man in Hollywood. His earnings, along with his burgeoning TV empire (three shows and counting), have him way up there in money...Oprah money. He's finally made it to the very top of the show business heap, making his rags (homeless) to riches (Forbes...Hello???) tale even more intriguing. Oddly enough, the man has no desire to slow down. While pouring much of his cash into a new Atlanta based studio, he also continues to contribute to both movies and his main love - the stage. This past year along, he had the seasonal (and some say, sensational) A Madea Christmas. In addition, he dropped most of the known characters in his collection (Madea, Aunt Bam, The Browns) to offer up a solo stage shot entitled Laugh to Keep from Crying. Centering on the economic woes of the Black community, it's another revival as real entertainment attempt. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of his dollar driven canon, this is a less than effective work from the unlikely cultural wunderkind.
In a small apartment block in the inner city, four different families take up residence under the watchful, weed smoking eye of building superintendant Floyd (Palmer Williams, Jr.). They include struggling single mother Carol (Cheryl Pepsii Riley) and her two kids, Tony (Donny Sykes) and Lisa (Tamar Davis). Across the hall lives hardworking widow Belinda (Chandra Currelley-Young) whose recently lost her job and her retirement, while on the second floor, haughty hooker Niecy (D'Atra Hicks ) holds court. One day, a white couple - Peter (Wess Morgan) and Anna (Stephanie Ferrett) - move into the vacant efficiency, hoping to save money while the former attends law school. In the meantime, Lisa becomes fixated on finding out who her birth father is, and when Carol gets belligerent about an answer, she gravitates toward Niecy for guidance...and a possible position on the streets. This might make evil pimp Eddie (Celestin Cornielle) happy, but for rest of the close-knit clan aren't happy about such a horrible possibility.
Tyler Perry is starting to lose his edge. Over the last few shows, he's begun to rely less on the manipulative melodrama, and instead, he makes sure to hire cast members who can sing their asses off. Then, instead of wrapping things up with a perfunctory message and a powerhouse song, he simply breaks out the Best of '70s/'80s Soul compilation and lets them go all Idol/Glee on the guaranteed crowd pleasers. It happened in Madea's Big Happy Family (our pot smokin', gun tottin' battle axe read the rebellious kids the riot act, and then broke out the Teddy Pendergrass) and it happens in his latest, dragless onstage experience, Laugh to Keep from Crying. As a device, as a means of getting the audience up and cheering along, it's clever as Hell. Drama and characterization no longer need to sell your sympathies. Just crank out an old Isley Brothers or Jackson Five tune and the people will panic! Indeed, Laugh to Keep From Crying does need some help in the heartfelt department. Perry is dealing with a full subject plate here (the current economic crisis, the street's lure of easy money) but then bifurcates it with the standard "Black Women as Warriors of the World" conceit.
As a result, some key phrases keep running around the storyline: "Don't you know what she is?"; "I'm sooooooo tired."; "Get me my MONEY!"; "Who's my DADDY?" The resolution to these quandaries (and a couple others) is the main driving force behind Laugh. We are supposed to care what happens to spoiled little Lisa as she gawks at and makes cow eyes over hooker Niecy's various designer bags. We are required, by parental mandate, to take her harried mother's side when the girl raises her hand to strike, or as she cries a river in regret. The loss of a job is treated as just another in a long line of indignities heaped upon the African American female, and in a really unusual move, Perry introduces a Caucasian couple who move to "the 'Hood" because they can't afford better housing in this market. Naturally, their uptight square stupidity (including attempts at ebonics and hip-hop slang) are milked for all the demo can stomach. Thankfully, the whole "Men are Pig-Dogs" dynamic is kept to a minimum, the only evil male coming in the persona of standard issue pimp Eddie. As he snarls and growls, we get the message loud and cliched clear.
But the biggest problem with Laugh to Keep from Crying is the lack of central struggle. Our overworked mom might think her kids are out of control, but her son is clearly studious and her daughter just needs some tough TLC. Similarly, Belinda's lack of cash can be cured by a block party, and Niecy's desire to get off the streets easily trumps any 'car antenna in a towel' threat. No one is really losing anything except 140 minutes of running time. Even our comedic guide, a goofball building super played with stand-up aplomb by Williams Jr., has superficial concerns. Before, Perry would pile on the problems - drug abuse and dealing, incest, molestation, infidelity, racism, police profiling, etc. Here, we get questions of cash...and that's about it. Threat always makes this man's material work better, even if it's as hackneyed as a husband who uses his fists to insist on having things his way. Laugh to Keep from Crying is an excellent showcase for some heretofore unsung talent (these people can SING, dammit!). But this is Perry on autopilot, and since his substance was specious to begin with, the latest lack of depth doesn't go unnoticed.
By now, Perry's production house has the capturing of his theatrical productions down pat. The visual aspect of this release, offered in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, is expertly directed, crystal clear and sharp as a tack. The colors pop and the details - dress designs, shirt logos - are easily readable. While the "you are there" concept of high definition video is not available on DVD, there is no "conversion to film" going on here. You get the live experience in as near to perfect a presentation as possible.
The sonic situation here is actually very good. This is a stage play, with the cast professionally miced for maximum musical mixing. The results, replicated in Dolby Digital 5.1, are excellent. All the dialogue is easy to understand and the audiences reaction to same is captured without completely overwhelming the conversations. As for the songs, they are consistently good and represent a broad base of Gospel wailing for the audience to enjoy. There is also a Spanish track, as well as English and Spanish subtitles to enjoy.
We get a collection of cast and audience interviews lasting about 10 minutes. They cover the gamut from undying praise of Perry to the utter delight it is to participate in/sit and witness one of his works. It's a genial bit of gladhanding, but that's all. Also included are a collection of Lionsgate trailers. It's the typical outpouring of added content when it comes to a Perry product.
If there is such a thing as "lesser" Tyler Perry, Laugh to Keep from Crying would be it. While it does suffer a bit from a lack of mandatory Madea (a guarantee to push any production over the top), it has enough on its own to hold the proposed audience enrapt. Outsiders, however, who are new to the money man and his muse need to backpedal a bit and seek out his earlier plays. Something like this is specifically geared to the already converted. Earning a Rent It rating, it's not a question of ownership so much as one of loyalty. If you love Tyler Perry - and there are a lot of things to enjoy about his output, Laugh to Keep from Crying will provide a similar standard of entertainment. Otherwise, this is a minor moment in the multi-millionaire's continuing rise to the top.