Diary of a Mad Black Woman is two different movies in one, with neither working particularly well. On one hand we have a ridiculously heavy-handed drama involving a woman, her rich, abusive husband, and the morally flawless man who wants to be her “knight in shining armor.” Yes, that line is actually used in the film. On the other hand we have sitcom-level comedy involving a gun-toting, trash-talking old woman (played by a man, of course). All of this is punctuated by a religious undertone that gets more and more intrusive as the film plods along.
Helen McCarter (Elise) is what most men would be looking for in a wife. She’s devoted, loving, and supporting. Her husband is successful criminal attorney Charles (Harris). In public he treats Helen like gold, thanking Helen profusely as he accepts an award for his hard work. Behind closed doors, however, he treats her horribly and is even physically abusive. We learn very early on that Charles has been having an affair with another woman and has even managed to have two kids behind Helen’s back. After a confrontation with Charles and the other woman, Helen is thrown out of the house (literally). Charles has even gone to the trouble of hiring a U-Haul driver, Orlando (Moore), to take all of Helen’s belongings away. Enter the knight in shining armor.
Helen goes to live with her aunt, Madea (Perry), an overbearing, obnoxious old woman who quickly overstays her welcome. She continually threatens her dirty brother with the gun she proudly keeps in her purse, and her advice to Helen regarding her situation with Charles always revolves around revenge.
We soon meet Helen’s entire family, all of whom have problems, but they have faith so it’s all okay. Helen’s cousin (Taylor) is a drug addict who started because she was jealous of Helen marrying a rich man, and has alienated her loving family. She belts out a few notes during the film’s climax at a church and is forgiven and accepted back into the family immediately. Please. Helen’s mother is stuck in a nursing home, and the rest of the family is either broke, stuck in the ghetto, or both.
The central story here involves the romance between Orlando and Helen. Orlando is so perfect he almost isn’t a male. He knows what to say and when to say it, sprouts poetic, loving dialogue as if he practices in front of the mirror for hours on end, and does not have one thing wrong with him. This is all put in place, of course, so that the audience can spend most of the movie yelling “what are you thinking!?” when Helen repeatedly gives him the cold shoulder because she hasn’t gotten over Charles. Not one contrivance is left uncovered, including a truly bizarre development that lands Charles in the hospital and subsequently leaves him wheelchair-bound.
If the screenplay had chosen a direct route, either comedy or drama, the film may have turned out better. Instead we get a massively uneven film in tone. Perry’s Madea is so annoying that about halfway through I was wishing the projector would malfunction. This is a character full of hate and bad advice, but only exists for cheap laughs and poorly executed slapstick humor. Why not use this screen time to further develop the romance between Orlando and Helen and make it at least semi-plausible?
The performances are pretty good despite the sub-standard material. Kimberly Elise is a fantastic actress and pulls off the wide range of emotions her character endures, no matter how insidious, very well. The film is on her shoulders, and with any other actress this film may have been totally unwatchable. Steve Harris is suitably menacing as the abusive Charles. He gets the job done in terms of getting us to hate him. Shemar Moore, who strikes a Calvin Klein pose whenever the camera finds him, is a capable actor who’s stuck playing the perfect sap. Welcome to the club! Cicely Tyson makes an a nice impact as Helen’s mother, but in the scheme of things she is underused and not given much to do other than to be sick and full of useful advice (much more useful than Madea’s, anyway).
Tyler Perry is clearly a gifted writer and could write one hell of a romantic screenplay if he could keep from trying to cover multiple genres. He knows how to develop characters and give them traits that anyone in the audience can identify with. Director Darren Grant does a nice job of using Atlanta locales to give the film a vibrant, urban feel.
Like the character of Madea, Diary of a Mad Black Woman overstays its welcome by a good half hour. Contrived, fairly unfunny, and losing its focus regularly, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a film that I cannot recommend.
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Length: 116 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for drug content, thematic elements, crude sexual references and some violence.
Theatrical Release: February 25, 2005
Directed by: Darren Grant
Written by: Tyler Perry. Based upon the play of the same name written by Perry.
Cast: Kimberly Elise, Steve Harris, Shemar Moore, Tamara Taylor, Lisa Marcos, Tiffany Evans