At one point in Tyler Perry’s latest tonal trainwreck, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Taraji P. Henson launches into a monologue about her family history that involves her late sister sticking one of her children into an oven while high on crack. Bad recycles the hoariest drug-hysteria trope in existence, one featured in Avenging Disco Godfather and spoofed on The Simpsons, yet Henson commits to the speech with such scary fervor that it somehow works. Her performance qualifies as a minor miracle: Playing a hard-living strumpet with a creepy boyfriend and a drinking problem, Henson lets her big, expressive brown eyes convey bottomless pain and buried sadness as she travels a predictable road from darkness to light, from sin to salvation.
She stars as a singer whose life is a bleary cycle of drunken nights, pounding hangovers, and impossible relationships until she’s visited by her parentless niece and two nephews, hard-luck cases in need of a home, a family, and an emotional rescue. Henson is soon faced with the easiest of choices: Should she continue to see a racist, child-hating married man (Brian J. White) who sexually menaces her niece, or give herself to a kind, handsome, Jesus-loving Mexican handyman (Adam Rodriguez) who buys her nephew insulin and builds the children a lovely bedroom?
Perry has long been a proponent of kitchen-sink melodrama. He throws everything at audiences, secure in the knowledge that his fans will happily lap up the chitlin’-circuit comedy of Madea (who pops up to comically threaten the orphans, then dispense gentle homespun wisdom) tethered to sermonizing and shrill melodrama. But with Bad, Perry is savvy enough to let riveting musical numbers by ringers like Gladys Knight and Mary J. Blige—along with Henson’s deeply empathetic performance—carry the film’s feverish emotions more than his characteristically ham-fisted screenplay. Perry plugs into the primal power of gospel, blues, soul, and the black church in ways that make Bad far more affecting than it has any right to be. His oeuvre has always been shameless and over the top, but Bad might just be the first of Perry’s films to border on operatic.