Tyler Perry strikes me as an insecure filmmaker, like he’s worried that tomorrow will come and everything he’s worked for will disappear, so today he has to build more and more as a wall to keep that possibility of loss out. This, even though he’s filled a niche historically ignored by Hollywood and made his own mini-empire from it. This, even though he’s directed 12 movies in six years. This, even though he’s released a few of his live plays on DVD and created a few TV shows. Does he ever relax? Does he ever think, “I want to write something quiet, something that still has drama, but doesn’t rely on a great number of people to convey it, that doesn’t necessarily go through so much to get there.”
He may have thought just that with Good Deeds, which feels like a breather for him, a smaller piece than what we’re accustomed to when we hear that Tyler Perry has another movie coming out, and our thoughts gravitate to either overdone melodrama or yet another Madea comedy. There is overblown drama here, but not always. There are clichéd lines and scenes that feel so out of place, and character feelings that are way too obvious to let us feel fully invested in them. (The end, with the worst use of Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting for You” in any movie, is prime evidence.) That’s what we’ve come to expect from Perry, and he delivers. Yet, the only strange thing about Good Deeds is how even though it’s set in San Francisco, it doesn’t feel like San Francisco. It feels like it was used as a prop, just as a show of opulence to separate the two classes of characters featured. As it turns out, Good Deeds was filmed in Atlanta, which explains it.
Good Deeds begins with the predictable morning of Wesley Deeds III (Perry in his most understated performance, showing that he may be looking to do something else in his performances besides what he’s already done, maybe doing it more in the future), getting dressed, and finding that the tie he picked out is too dark and putting on another one. His fiancé, Natalie (Gabrielle Union) knows him so well that she quietly says to herself what he’s going to say before he says it. It’s what she expects after all these years, and she seems to be ok with it.
Wesley runs a computer software company started by his father, as has been expected of him. His mother, Wilimena (Phylicia Rashad) knows she can rely on him, because he’s just so reliable, doing everything that everyone wants, unlike his emotionally volatile brother, Walter (Brian White), who wants to run the company but is too unstable to keep it going like Wesley does. What a life. What a totally predictable life.
In comes Thandie Newton as a marked contrast to the wealthy life Wesley and family lead. She plays Lindsey Wakefield, a single mother who’s struggling so mightily financially that she’s evicted from her apartment and ends up homeless in her minivan, trying a homeless shelter at first only to be attacked, and realizing that just like her entire life has been, she has to protect herself, look out for herself and her daughter (Jordenn Thompson, who’s quite effective in her scenes with Newton). She takes on a night shift at the Deeds building as a custodian, as she’s done during the day, but there’s more money during the night shift. However, she has no one to watch her daughter, so she takes her along, telling her to stay quiet in the supply closet while she works. Wesley and Lindsey’s first meeting actually happens when she parks her van in Wesley’s spot while she goes on to get her latest check and try to get an advance on her salary, though she learns that the IRS is keeping most of it for the taxes she hasn’t paid. Besides being a film of contrasts between classes, between families, that one scene early on easily shows the contrast between brothers, with Wesley not wanting to get involved when Brian shouts derisively at Lindsey for parking in that spot and calls in a tow truck driver to haul the van away.
The relationship between Wesley and Lindsey is obviously inevitable, but Perry takes his time with it, to the extent that an hour passes by without much happening. It’s just Wesley’s life, lived every day, even though Lindsey is now there, trying to get him to loosen up, even at the same time she’s trying to put her life back together. She knows there’s a better man there than the one he is, closed-off, doing so much for everyone else instead of doing for himself. As expected, she opens him up.
Good Deeds is at times a trying movie to get through because Perry makes his sermon so obvious. He presses it hard. And yet, he has achieved something remarkable with this cast. He’s really good with Thandie Newton. There’s a hint of an actor within him that’s not readily found in his other movies, gradually changing without shouting about it, without making such a fuss. It’s almost to the point where you want to shake him, exclaiming, “Change already!”, but the scenes between him and Newton are remarkable. They show a potentially maturing filmmaker who maybe one day will be more subtle than he ever has been. He nearly trusts his audience to simply come along, to explore for themselves how they feel about this potential couple, about Wesley’s life.
Surprisingly, the most impressive scene does not come from Perry and Newton. It comes from Gabrielle Union and Perry, after Lindsey has changed him so, after he realizes that he’s not happy with the life he has because it doesn’t involve who he is and what he truly wants. In this one scene toward the end, Natalie reveals her true feelings to Wesley about who they are together, and it’s not the act of a woman scorned. She doesn’t get angry, because through him, she’s realized who she truly is too and what she wants. It’s the one scene that gives me faith that maybe, just maybe, Perry is breathing more, relaxing more, seeing that he’s not going to lose his mini-empire, that he has it for as long as he wants it, that he can make movies like Good Deeds, and there will be an audience, just like there has been before. He still has to work on dialogue, perhaps observing real life more, but there may very well be a good change coming.
The DVD from Lionsgate is a disappointment with two featurettes (“Motherly Love” and “Two Worlds Collide”) which only explain what we’ve already seen, and offer no real insight from the actors or from Perry. I’ve never wanted an audio commentary from Perry before, but I do with Good Deeds, to learn what inspired him to make this, and where he was in his life when he decided to write this. Actors endlessly praising one another do not make for good special features on a DVD. There’s also trailers for the filmed play Aunt Bam’s Place, and Why Did I Get Married Too, The Family That Preys, Madea’s Big Happy Family, and all of Tyler Perry’s movies on Blu-ray. Madea’s Witness Protection is coming to theaters soon, and watching these trailers as well as the clips featured in the Blu-ray trailer, I wonder if Perry really needs Madea anymore. She seems more like a crutch now, because Perry could easily make more movies like Good Deeds now. He needs to. It’s the first step to a much better filmmaker emerging in Perry. For the first time, I look forward to seeing what he has next. I’m rooting for the Tyler Perry that’s evident here.