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Ebiri on The Single Moms Club: Focus, Tyler Perry, Focus!

The Single Moms Club, Tyler Perry’s latest collection of Tyler Perry–isms, starts off well enough, with a series of single mothers from different walks of life being called into the principal’s office at their children’s very exclusive school for a multi-parent heart-to-heart. There’s Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the snotty publishing executive; Lytia (Cocoa Brown), the sassy waitress from the hood; Hillary (Amy Smart), a mother of three in the midst of a nasty divorce from her lawyer husband; beautiful Esperanza (Zulay Henao), who doesn’t want her daughter or her manipulative ex to know about her new boyfriend; and May (Nia Long), an overworked journalist and aspiring author. These are some great actresses, and with writer-director-producer Perry displaying some rare focus, you’re intrigued at first by the possibility of watching them interact for a couple of hours. It doesn’t last.

All these mothers’ kids, as a result of neglect or rebellion, were caught smoking or scrawling graffiti after school. As punishment, the moms are assigned to organize the school’s annual charity ball. (Let’s set aside the question of whether an exclusive private school would ever hand over an important event like that to the parents of problem kids they almost expelled. It’s Tyler Perry; it could be worse.) As the moms get together, Perry struggles to juggle all of his various narrative strands: the planning for the ball, which gets the barest modicum of attention; the titular “club” the moms cook up, whereby each takes turns babysitting the kids while the others do fun stuff like go out to strip clubs, the movies, karaoke, etc.; as well as individual moms’ attempts to reach out to their kids.

Oh, and the men. Turns out, if The Single Moms Club is about anything, it’s about finding yourself a man. Yes, in this ostensible celebration of single motherhood and independence, practically every character is portrayed as being incomplete without the right dude – sometimes, in the crudest way possible. As Hillary ogles her hunky neighbor (Ryan Eggold), Jan exhorts her on the phone to “whack his weeds.” Meanwhile, May meets TK (Perry himself), who is kind and perfect and not at all stalkerlike when he obsessively rummages in her bag after she accidentally leaves it behind. (“You’re behind on your credit card bills,” he helpfully informs her, to which she just giggles and talks about how embarrassed she is, instead of taking out a restraining order.) As for Lytia, she’s being wooed by smitten bodybuilder Branson (Terry Crews, who gets the movie’s biggest laugh when he waltzes into her diner and sings, “Hey Lytia/How’s the most beautiful girl in the city-a?/Boy, I love the way that apron wraps around your titty-a.”).

Perry’s audience may be largely female, but he’s not exactly your typical feminist, so if he wants to make a movie about how single moms would all be better off with some husbands, you wish he’d at least try to make it a good one. The problem here isn’t the writer-director’s politics, but his stifling lack of imagination, his complete refusal to even attempt narrative dexterity. When Jan’s male boss points out that she's been spending more time dealing with her daughter, she replies, in all seriousness, "I'm determined that women can have it all!" That makes for a fine magazine headline, but it’s not exactly effective dialogue. When, one scene later, Jan asks her daughter, “What am I gonna do with you?” the girl replies, "Do what you always do! Book me into something to get me away from you. Book me into oblivion!" It's like Perry can't even be bothered to actually explore these ideas; he just has someone state it — or, even better, yell it — and he moves on to the next thing. This isn't being blunt; it's being careless.

But then, every once in a while, he captures a moment that makes you wonder. By far the most touching strand of Single Moms Club is the relationship between May and her troubled, stubborn son Rick. The boy wants to be with his father, but dad never seems to show up. So May waits in the shadows, sitting in her car outside after school as Rick waits, futilely, for his dad. "I try to see which way Rick’s going to fall, and I try to catch him," she confides to Jan. (Long is incredible here.) Perry, who came from a broken home himself, shoots much of the scene in long shot — as if the pain is too great to get too close. In rare instances like these, Single Moms Club comes alive with genuinely expressive filmmaking — moments of soul that ironically underline what's missing from the rest of this wildly uneven film.

Photo: KC Bailey / Lionsgate