Above all else, Tyler Perry’s poignant “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is a movie about people who have fallen through what Pastor Brian (Marvin Winans) calls “the crevices of life.” Nobody’s as familiar with this predicament as April Sullivan (Taraji P. Henson), a nightclub singer who pretends she’s perfectly happy sleeping with married sleazeball Randy (Brian J. White) and waking up every morning with a raging hangover. Trouble is, April’s smart enough to know better. She just doesn’t see much reason to try to be better.
This is where Perry succeeds: He explores — much as he did in the uplifting “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” — the ways in which other people more and less fortunate than the closed-down April try to hoist her off the bottom. There’s Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), a Colombian immigrant living as a boarder in April’s basement. Still more people offer help: Tanya (Mary J. Blige), the nightclub bartender whom we suspect has survived rougher times than April; Pastor Brian; and Wilma (Gladys Knight), a churchgoer whose faith in her God and herself never wavers. Though April mistrusts their kindness, pushes them away, they keep showing up. Characters like this, so willing to be completely present for someone bent on self-destruction, give “I Can Do Bad” the kind of real emotional heft (not sap) and heart that most of Perry’s movies lack.
If only the writer-producer-direct-actor could have stopped there, he’d have made a good movie, possibly even a really good one. But since he’s Tyler Perry, he insists on interrupting the important scenes with what we’ve come to call “Madea Moments.” These moments, as per usual, are little more than crazed rants by the unhinged Madea, that homicidal nutjob who outlived her usefulness shortly after “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” wrapped. Why Perry insists on hanging onto this woman — who, yes, made him a name but now serves merely as a loud nuisance — is a mystery. He’s better than this.
Fortunately, the Madea Moments are few and far-between. This is a blessing that gives us time to get good and involved in the meat of “I Can Do Bad”: April’s reaction to the discovery she’s the only living relative of her late sister’s three children, brought to her house by an enraged Madea after they attempted to steal her VCR. April has no room in her life for anything but booze, cigarettes and Randy, who claims to hate kids but looks a bit forgetful of this every time he eyes 16-year-old Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson). Sandino’s appearance complicates things even more because he feels sorry for the children and tries to make them feel welcome in a home where it’s crystal clear they’re not wanted.
Because this is a Perry movie, certain things must happen. Why else would “I Can Do Bad” have such a rushed, pat ending that barely fits with the 70-plus insightful minutes that came before it? Tradition. But other Perry staples work nicely, particularly musical numbers — the best being Mary J. Blige’s blistering-good “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” — that underscore the characters’ emotional states. And Madea does have one funny scene involving a convoluted Bible tale involving Noah and (no kidding) the St. Louis Arch.
It’s the people, though, that separate “I Can Do Bad” from the pack. Blige doesn’t have a huge part, but she brings a strong, no-B.S. energy to the screen. Rodriguez, mostly here to look pretty, continues to radiate that surprising mix of warmth and vulnerability he supplies on (stop laughing) “CSI: Miami.” And when an Oscar nominee like Taraji P. Henson shows up in Perry production, rest assured the big guns have been called. She does not disappoint as April, making her a woman who turned hard young out of emotional necessity but kept it up because being numb and bitter became comfortable. She’s the emotional core that makes “I Can Do Bad” the strongest movie Perry’s ever made … which is more of a compliment than you’d think.