Tyler Perry has been many things, but he’s never quite been boring before. In Good Deeds, the gazillionaire writer-director-actor-entrepreneur-professional-cross-dresser takes a step back from his earlier boisterous and wildly melodramatic work, but he doesn’t exactly replace it with anything. Not that the dramatic set-up isn’t rich with opportunities: Shedding aside his gun-toting, loudmouth grandma “Madea” persona, Perry plays Wesley Deeds, a wealthy businessman engaged to sexy, “perfect” real-estate agent Natalie (Gabrielle Union) who begins to fall in love with Lindsey (Thandie Newton), the impoverished single mother who cleans his office. The film is about more than finding love in an unlikely and inopportune place, however; it’s also about the importance of living one’s own life and refusing to do what’s expected of you by others: Wesley has lived his life under his family’s shadow and he’s never really stuck up for himself, and now he’s about to sleepwalk his way into a sure-to-be-lifeless marriage that seems like the right thing to everybody except him. It’s the kind of personal, universal theme that could resonate with audiences well beyond Perry’s main fanbase. Maybe that’s why he’s chosen to play it so straight this time.
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really work. Look, a lot of critics (myself included) aren’t too keen on Perry’s brand of evangelizing comedy-melodrama — with its wild and sudden tonal shifts, its broad comic gags, its simple-minded psychologizing and even simpler-minded attempts at communal catharsis, all of it living uncomfortably crammed together in one visually undistinguished cinematic package. But it is, for better and for worse, his thing — the stylistic and artistic realm in which he operates and where he clearly feels most comfortable (and where he’s made boatloads of money). Watching the impossibly dry and somnambulant Good Deeds, you actually miss that crazy side of Perry. It’s sort of ironic: Here’s a film about a guy who’s being false to his true self, and you realize the director might be doing the same.
Of course, Wesley is meant to be a bore — a predictable guy who can always be counted on to do “the right thing” — but we want to see a glimpse of his divided self bubbling to the surface. A couple of early scenes are promising: In one, Natalie stands at the mirror making herself up and predicting, like some kind of gorgeous puppeteer, what Wesley, dressing himself in the background, is about to say: “Is this tie too dark?” etc. There’s an incantatory, almost Antonioni-esque beauty to this moment (Union’s performance helps), but it might be inadvertent: That kind of elegance goes out the window once we actually have to spend time with Wesley himself and Perry’s no-note performance. As an actor, he can’t seem to muster more than a placid, slightly befuddled look — and he uses it regardless of whether he’s quelling hidden emotions or emptying his soul to the woman he secretly loves. That emptiness is highlighted by the fact that Newton, who remains one of our finest actors (and who also starred in Perry’s previous prestige project For Colored Girls) acts circles around him, displaying all the vulnerability and spirit that everyone else seems to lack. She’s meant to have those qualities, of course, but she’s also supposed to bring Wesley out of his shell. But Wesley’s moments of happiness and fulfillment seem indistinguishable from his moments of repressed anguish. When he asks Lindsey, “Am I living my own life, or the life I’ve been told to live?” you’d expect something to shine through on his face. Perry can identify the character’s torment but he can’t seem to make it tangible. It’s enough to make you want Madea to charge in and start knocking sense into people.