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June 12, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
Tyler Perry's Good Deeds: Pretty Good, Indeed
by Andrew E. Lindsay

Tyler Perry's latest offering is a modern fairy-tale of sorts, but not the kind for little kids. The subject matter is decidedly grown-up, and you should be forewarned that some of the language is a little bumpy, there is some sexuality in a few scenes (but nothing particularly gratuitous), and the main character lives with his fiancée before they are married. If you can watch a movie with those kinds of issues, here's what you're in for:

Tyler Perry wrote, directed and stars in Good Deeds, the story of a man who has been groomed from birth to be the man he is today. His father was a brilliant programmer who built a software empire and amassed a fortune in the process. He had two sons, Wesley and Walter Deeds, and his desire was always for them to take over and run the very successful company.

Wesley (Tyler Perry) assumed the role of CEO after his father's early death, and Walter (Brian White) is vocally bitter about his brother's control of the company, reminding "Mr. CEO" on a regular basis that he, Walter, was supposed to run the company, and that Wesley doesn't even care about running the business.

He's right, but he's also an alcoholic with anger issues, a failed marriage, and a propensity for philandering. And despite the fact that Wesley doesn't really want to run the very large family business, he's very, very good at it and he shoulders the responsibility out of a deep, perhaps unhealthy, sense of obligation to his parents and others to never let anyone down.

Wesley's driven sense of duty also makes him very predictable, a fact which increasingly bothers his fiancée, Natalie, played by Gabrielle Union. In a moment of drunken anger she expresses this rather vocally.

Wesley and Natalie do love each other and are planning to marry soon, an event that has been orchestrated for years by their powerful, influential mothers. Wesley's widowed mother, Wilimena, is played with icy strength by Phylicia Rashad. Her open contempt for the failings of her son Walter are in stark contrast for her blind praise for Wesley, a fact that is not lost on either son and that both, in fact, resent.

Walter's resentment is public and explosive; Wesley internalizes his frustrations and always takes the high, if not predictable, road, biting his tongue while still trying to please everyone but himself.

Wesley's life takes an abrupt left turn one morning after he picks up his brother on the way to the office, enduring a luxury car ride filled with fraternal hostility. This is nothing new, since his brother apparently lost his right to drive due to his alcoholism.

What makes this morning a little different is the fact that upon arriving in the parking deck of the building that bears his name, Mr. Deeds finds a frazzled young woman parking her minivan in his reserved space.

Wesley speaks calmly and respectfully to her as she runs into the building, leaving her very young daughter alone in the car. Walter explodes out of the car and takes up the fight, trading insults and profanity with the woman and then calling security to have the van towed away.

Wesley ultimately lets the woman go without towing the car, which further infuriates his brother. Their one-sided battle is apparently just another day at the office for the brothers. The woman is Lindsey Wakefield, played by Thandie Newton, and she is having the worst day of her already very difficult life.

Lindsey's husband was killed in Iraq while she was in nursing school. She had to quit school to provide for their daughter, and she's barely making ends meet working double shifts as a janitor in Deeds's building. On this particular day, she gets evicted from her apartment, all of her meager worldly belongings are tossed onto the curb, she gets reprimanded for being late because she has to take her daughter to school, and the school principal chews her out for always bringing her daughter late and picking her up late.

Add this to the altercation in the parking deck and her life is quickly spiraling out of control. She also didn't have any clue who she was fighting with, later accusing the owner of the company of being "a middle-aged white dude." Wesley later discovers Lindsey's daughter sleeping in a janitor's closet late at night, and gradually begins to find out the truth about Lindsey's life.

Because this plays like a fairy tale, it doesn't take a lot to figure out where the story is headed. Prince Charming, the wicked witch, a damsel in distress, a jaded brother who feels betrayed, a stalwart assistant, a good-hearted princess who loves the prince but realizes they're not right for each other, your basic cast of storybook characters thrown into Tyler Perry's magic blender. And yet, despite the fact that I could pretty much tell where we were going from about twenty minutes into the movie, it wasn't a disappointing ride at all.

(Although I didn't care much for the underlying morally bankrupt idea of two people living together outside the bonds of marriage, it seems even Tyler Perry's strong, consistent message of pro-family, pro-marriage in his films has been corrupted by Hollywood's view that this is OK behavior, particularly if the people involved really love each other. After all, they are devoted and committed to each other, they just haven't gotten around to the mere formality of a ceremony.)

The gist of the story (and it's always about the story) is that here's a man who has been afforded every privilege life has to offer, and he's still a good and honorable man. He loves his fiancée and never cheats on her. He respects his mother and protects his brother. He treats his employees fairly. And when he sees a need in someone's life, he tries to make a difference.

He's out of touch, perhaps, but it's not really his fault. And so begins his journey to find himself and some measure of joy in his very full but very unfulfilling life.

It's a story that mirrors the main character himself: somewhat predictable, but true to the idea that being honest and generous and decent is more important than self-gratification.

Perry's characters are familiar and comfortable because they're real, the actors' portrayals are honest and believable. This is not a movie where drama is mixed with cartoonish comedy that intentionally toys with our suspension of disbelief. The humor in Good Deeds is an appropriate accent to the real struggles of the people we care about on screen.

Another interesting aspect about this movie, perhaps more than any other Tyler Perry movie I've seen, is that despite the fact that Perry receives (and deserves) accolades for being an extremely successful black writer/director/actor/producer in an industry that is still predominantly run by white folk, this movie isn't about black people. The story is about people.

True, most of the actors are black, but that really has nothing to do with the story that Perry is telling. And with the obvious exception of stories that are specifically about race or prejudice, the best stories aren't black or white; they're clear.

They don't just relate to rich people or poor people, or educated people or working class folk, they reach across all those issues and stereotypes and labels and simply tell a good story that real people can relate to. The stories we tell as a culture define us, and help us see ourselves for who we really are.

A good story is no respecter of persons; a good story underscores our common humanity and lets us see a bit of ourselves in someone we appear to have nothing in common with. Good Deeds is aptly named, as Tyler Perry delivers another good story, slightly flawed, perhaps. But then, aren't we all?

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