Save for the climactic image of an antagonistic male character frantically hauling his bare ass out of a bathtub in slow motion, I Can Do Bad All by Myself is as polished and eager to please audiences as it is remarkably inoffensive—and to the extent with which is seems to resist auteur theory, inoffensively unremarkable. Fans of Tyler Perry already know that this film—the latest to be adapted from his successful stage plays—is light on Madea (full name Mable “Madea” Simmons, played by Perry), whose presence here is tertiary and basically equivalent to that of an extended cameo. For those of us not yet totally won over by her scabrous antics and homegrown moralizing, this seems an appropriate level of exposure for her breed of satire in what is otherwise a dramatic narrative.
Unlike the contradictory Madea Goes to Jail, I Can Do Bad effectively incorporates Madea’s presence into the world at large with greater levels of tonal consistency (Roger Ebert’s much decried one-star review of Diary of a Man Black Woman essentially lamented that film’s contrasting elements, part real world, part cartoon insanity). Though funny unto herself, Madea can also prove outright frightening in the context of reality (just as Family Guy‘s Quagmire is only acceptable within the borders of pure satirical anarchy). I Can Do Bad acknowledges Madea’s flaws with loving scrutiny, and doesn’t require approval of her more selfish attributes.
At the film’s outset, a small gang of children sneaks into Madea’s home, breaking elderly pothead Joe’s (also Perry) vintage VCR in the process. Madea catches them in the act, and one light beating and stern talking to later, learns that their mother is dead and their grandmother—who takes care of them—has been absent for days. Enter closest relative Aunt April (Taraji P. Henson), sister of the children’s deceased mother and daughter to their missing grandmother; April’s life consists of drinking by night, sleeping by day, and relying on her on-loan boyfriend to pay the bills. What emerges is a straightforward morality tale in which April must overcome her personal inhibitions and do the right—rather than the easy—thing: take in her sister’s children at the cost of her boyfriend (the effectively scummy Brian J. White), or leave them with adoptive services where they will almost certainly be separated.
There isn’t an angle from which Perry doesn’t lay it on thick, but while the film’s storytelling and emotions are eager and broad, they’re also rarely shrill, and often the opposite. Between the film’s many nightclub and church sequences, it seems that nearly half the running time is taken up by musical performances—rousing, soulful numbers (take that, Dreamgirls) that deliberately, smoothly figure into the plot (the best, sheer celebration, is saved for last). Similarly, the local church is prominent in steering the events of the film; Perry seems to be reflecting on the role of the church in the larger American community. More moral than religious, the film suggests that only greater attentiveness to the needs of our immediate neighbors, essentially the golden rule, will see us through this chapter of national history. It isn’t great art, but it’s popular art worth believing in.