Tyler Perry could do (and has done) a lot worse than "I Can Do Bad All by Myself," a near-total overhaul of the play that introduced his cross-dressing Madea character. Elbowing the cantankerous old lady aside for the come-to-Jesus story of an alcoholic lounge singer saddled with her sister's kids, Perry's latest emotional roller coaster starts with considerable promise and a high-wattage cast, including Taraji P. Henson and singers Gladys Knight and Mary J. Blige, before giving way to melodramatic predictability. Though unlikely to win converts, pic will draw enough Perry and Christian regulars to ensure another major hit.
Perry, who's always shown a gift for writing the fairer sex, re-creates "Bad" around Henson's character, a hellcat named April. The only comforts in her emotionally closed-off existence come from the club where she performs (her singing voice is dubbed by Cheryl Pepsii Riley), at the bottom of a bottle or in bed with the appropriately named Randy (Brian White), the married troublemaker who pays her bills. April's just the sort of fallen woman who could use a moral makeover, which she'll get after her 16-year-old niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) and two special-needs nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Freddy Siglar) break into the last house in Atlanta any amateur criminal would want to rob.
"Honey, I been to jail. I will shank you, fool!" Madea threatens upon catching the three kids red-handed in her living room. For those unfamiliar with Perry's stock characters, Mabel Simmons (aka Madea) and her pothead brother Joe are the prolific writer-director-producer's gold-mine comic creations - two fatsuit-clad alter egos seen squabbling through the majority of Perry's pics. Their scenes are frontloaded in "Bad," supplying some much-needed laughs to the opening stretch as Madea takes a firm hand with the young miscreants.
Seems that after their crackhead mama died, the trio stayed with their grandmother, who's been missing for four days. We immediately suspect what it takes the movie 45 minutes to confirm: The elderly caregiver won't be coming back, which means April will have to find room in her selfish life to raise the kids herself. Predictable as that sounds, Perry has armed himself with two formidable performers in Henson and young British thesp Wilson, who plays the eye-rolling adolescent so convincingly, a well-timed smile can transform her character completely.
And because no Perry pic would be complete without a prince in hobo's clothing, the local pastor pressures April to take in a Colombian handyman (Adam Rodriguez), introducing a kind, genuine individual into her life - qualities so foreign to April, she takes a long time to see her lodger's romantic potential.
There are absolutely no surprises in store, plot-wise, though Perry's approach has always been to rework familiar narrative conventions in such a way as to reaffirm key values (namely, generosity, community and forgiveness), remind us that no hardship is too severe to overcome (Perry is the very model of second-chance success), and supply laughter and catharsis in hearty doses. He trades on stereotypes - April's alcoholism is a clumsy shorthand - but never racial ones, and as appealing as Henson was in her Oscar-nominated turn as the long-suffering mammy in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," this is actually a more nuanced role for the gifted actress.
"Bad" is also noteworthy in that it's Perry's first adaptation to feature as much singing onscreen as it did onstage. With Knight and Blige playing a kindly church lady and a battle-scarred club owner, respectively, Perry is free to transform these characters' insights into full-blown rafter-raisers, the lyrics serving to empower April and audiences alike. Since the characters themselves are all singers, their anthems feel organic, and though they may put the plot on hold for as long as seven minutes at a time, April experiences some serious emotional growth during each of these scenes.
Even more than "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "Bad" seems to be a story for the ladies, and Perry knows just how to please his loyal followers. Helmer may be preaching Godly virtue, but he's not above treating guilty-pleasure glimpses of White's partially nude bod as heaven-sent. Where Madea seemed to overstay her welcome in earlier films, there's actually not much of her this time around (a point underscored by the end-credits outtakes). Her scene-stealing potential notwithstanding, it's easier to take Perry seriously when she's not the center of attention.