Oprah Movie-Of-The-Month Club

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Diary of a Mad Black Woman, in which Kimberly Elise plays a meek, pampered trophy wife abandoned by her rich slimebag husband, is the most original new American film on screens now—not great, or even very good, but original. That's not a ringing endorsement. But in this singularly weak season, which has taken moviegoers from January to March without delivering a single American film worth arguing about, it'll have to do.


Adapted by playwright-actor-composer Tyler Perry from his own theatrical smash, Diary is the movie version of a potluck supper. The spread includes cartoonishly broad slapstick, 100-proof melodrama, romance-novel wish-fulfillment, social commentary, Oprah-ready self-help blather and a powerful undercurrent of southern-Christian sentiment. Perry's chameleonic, Peter Sellers-Eddie Murphy turn in a number of supporting roles is this feast's equivalent of a dessert overdose: three different kinds of pie heaped on the same Chinette plate.


Building on her dazzling star turn as a death-row inmate in last year's Woman Thou Art Loosed, Elise plays Helen McCarter, a working-class woman who breezed into Atlanta society on the coattails of her husband, flamboyant Atlanta defense attorney Charles McCarter (Steve Harris of The Practice). The movie begins with Charles accepting an award as Atlanta attorney of the year; the couple's dreamy, slo-mo arrival at the event has a grim undercurrent, thanks to shots of Charles checking out attractive women en route to their table.


Accepting the prize, Charles thanks his wife of 18 years for making his success possible, but the hearts-and-flowers shout-out is a prelude to moustache-twirling villainy. Pulling into the driveway of their Xanadu-like McMansion, Charles informs Helen that he's leaving to take care of something. Helen knows what that means, but passive-aggressively requests clarification. "When you get a job and pay one of these bills, then you can ask me questions," he answers.


Soon enough, Charles has kicked Helen out of her own house to make room for his mistress and her son. Shattered, Helen hitches a ride with a sweet corn-rowed hunk hired to pack up her stufffuture love interest Orlando, played by soap star Shemar Moore. But she literally kicks the good Samaritan to the curb in a fit of pique, drives the U-Haul to her old neighborhood and seeks solace with her aunt-cum-grandmama figure, a feisty, sarcastic, chain-smoking, gun-toting, advice-dispensing mountain of black womanhood. The older woman is none-too-subtly named Madea and played under two tons of makeup by Perry.


Like Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House, Perry makes no pretense of trying to convince you that the character is anything other than a theatrical conceita drag-queeny "life force" as embodied by a strapping young man impersonating a much larger older woman. Whenever Perry is onscreen playing Madeaor Madea's raunchy, flatulent older brother Joethe movie's esthetic shifts from straight-faced melodrama to italicized farce, so drastically that it's a wonder the projector gears don't shatter. Yet Perry's rollicking life force pulverizes any cognitive dissonance.


The performance is so big, in every senseJackie Gleason-, Orson Welles- and Benny Hill-bigthat it presents viewers with a rare, starkly defined choice: Accept Diary as the movie version of live theater or shut down and start sneering. Your decision will depend on your tolerance for the reckless splicing of three-hanky melodrama and sketch comedy.


Incredibly, Diary grows more ambitious as the story unfolds. Madea spurs Helen to return to Charles' McMansion and vandalize the mistress' wardrobe; Helen reconnects with the blue-collar life and childhood affection she abandoned for life with Charles, then allows Orlando to court her; Charles lets himself be bullied into defending a vicious drug dealer on a murder beef, setting the stage for inevitable karmic payback. Perry's script also makes room for a subplot involving Helen's cousin Brian (Perry again!), a straight-laced single dad who won't permit his darling young daughter, a wannabe-singer, to follow in the footsteps of her mom, Debrah (Tamara Taylor), a musician turned drug addict.


Perry isn't just adding plot for plot's sake: The stories bounce off each other in satisfying ways, particularly during the film's final stretch when Helen's unexpected chance at vengeance is juxtaposed against Brian's decision to let his daughter take baby steps toward autonomy. Both narratives are about independence and forgiveness; Helen must forgive (but not forget) Charles' treachery, and Brian must forgive (but not forget) the damage wrought by Debrah's addiction.


Both journeys also unfold within the context of Helen's reconnection with the Church, incarnated by Helen's elderly, God-fearing, nursing-home-bound mother (Cicely Tyson, whose high-backed red chair suggests a throne) and other faithful characters. Unfashionably, the movie treats religion as a source of strength and a moral tether binding fallen individuals to their culture. "He was my everything," Helen tells her mother, mooning over her hateful ex. "God is your everything," her mother replies. "Don't you know He's a jealous God?"


Music-video ace turned feature filmmaker Darren Grant juggles Perry's mood and modes proficiently but without flair, using the camera mainly to record performances. A vision this eclectic and electricTerry McMillan plus Douglas Sirk plus Jerry Lewisneeded an obsessive, inscrutable, off-kilter filmmaker to do it justice; Grant seems too polite and even-tempered to summon that sort of energy.


Diary is a jumbled wreck of a moviealternately prosaic and loony. But the source material is so rich and in-your-face sincere that it works anyway. I suspect the film will be greeted with the same mix of anthropological curiosity and snickering that's dogged Perry throughout his theatrical career. But maybe audiences will see what critics can't. This may prove to be a slow-building cult phenomenon that endures withering pans but lingers in theaters for weeks, eventually forcing the same critics who dismissed it to write think-pieces explaining its success.




Up and Down

Directed by Jan Hrebejk

Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk's Up and Down is a character-driven movie that's more interested in atmosphere and performance than visual acrobatics and three-act plotting. Set in modern-day Prague, a once-homogenous city upended by immigration and cultural change, it takes its cues from Mike Leigh, Milos Forman, John Cassavetes and the first and third acts of The Deer Hunter, following an ensemble cast through a meandering, somewhat elliptical narrative, punctuated by intriguingly long, detailed, dramatic setpieces that unfold in real time.

The tale is sparked when two immigrant-smuggling Czechs accidentally end up in possession of an Indian infant, which eventually finds its way into the hands of a childless couple. Mila (Natasa Burger) is a baby-obsessed basket case, while her bull-necked security- guard husband, Frantisek (Jir Machcek) is a convicted criminal, ex-soccer hooligan and racist who must then explain how he and his wife came into possession of a brown-skinned baby.

Their story intertwines, rather loosely, with the tale of an expatriate Czech named Martin (Petr Forman, Milos' son) who leaves his adopted homeland of Australia to visit his dad, Otakar (Jan Triska), a professor who survived a stroke. This family's life is a hornet's nest of domestic intrigue: Otakar divorced Martin's mom, Vera (Emlia Vsryov) to marry the much younger Hana (Ingrid Timkov) and fathered a daughter (Kristyna Bokova), whom half-brother Martin has never met. Vera tries to reconnect with her ex-husband and unite the fractured family, but her uncouth emotionalism and straight-up racist sentiments unnerve everybody, including her too-patient son.

Up and Down is an intelligent, likeable, at times charming movie, loosely woven around the idea that change of any sort (demographic, domestic, financial) cannot be reversed or even resisted, only accepted. But it's too shaggy and unfocused to make its points with the resounding impact such an ambitious story requires. You keep wanting it to be great, but in the end have to settle for it being good and decent. It's an achievement that should have been a triumph.

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