Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Box Office Mystery of Tyler Perry

There aren’t too many filmmakers that I outright do not care for at all. I don’t like the films of Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, or Uwe Boll, but I don’t harbor ill will against the people themselves, just the poor-quality films they turn out. I can’t say the same thing about writer/director/douchebag Tyler Perry.

A playwright by the age of 18, Perry has made his own fortune touring his sentimental yet “edgy” family dramedies around the country, featuring his own “original” character Madea (how original is a heavyset, opinionated, wise-cracking black woman, even if its a guy in drag?). When he made the transition from stage to screen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, I wasn’t surprised to see critics collectively pan the film. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t good, it wasn’t even mediocre. The film was poorly made, poorly written, poorly acted, and was far too cliché, borrowing liberally from other stories and situations that had been done better before Perry chose to drop Madea into them.

What was surprising was how the box office figures turned out. Now we’ve seen people turn out for bad movies before, and my favorite moment of the Hollywood elite not understanding audiences may be Chris Rock’s video at the 2005 Academy Awards where moviegoers tell him their favorite movies of the year were White Chicks and The Chronicles of Riddick, but Tyler Perry becoming a franchise (mainly in the Bible Belt, but there are sizeable audiences elsewhere) just seems wrong to me.

The man doesn’t seem to have any original ideas, and brings back Madea far too often to be the stereotypical loud, angry, black woman who just cracks jokes. I love Kevin Smith, and the knock that he always relies on Jay and Silent Bob is a little bit of a different case to me. The two have very minor roles in Clerks and Chasing Amy, and got their own specialty film in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but they actually provide insight and a moral compass to Smith’s films.

Perry’s films are vaguely religious in their tone, and to that end he’s right when he says Hollywood doesn’t understand the audience of his films. Most big art – and by that I mean television, film, and music - is not made by devoutly religious people anymore; artists don’t require the patronage of wealthy devout people or the church to create works of art.

Where I don’t like Perry on a filmmaker level is that he is bulletproof to bad ratings and devoted audiences drink his stuff up like Kool-Aid. Films like the Movie have seen declining grosses over the years as the terrible ratings rack up, but the devoted audience Perry has cultivated seems content with buying tickets to see his plays, DVDs of his plays being performed, tickets to the movies based on his plays, DVDs of those movies, and continuing to see everything he produces. Perry is a figure that works outside the system, mocks it, and survives the way artists never used to be able to: making money in spite of the lack of quality of their art.

His new movie The Family That Preys comes out on Friday, and in light of the critical beating he’s taken over the years I’m anxious to see if he’s finally made a respectable film, or he’s just recycled another plot that we’ve seen a million times before and packaged it so that his core audience will deliver him another typically-sized profit. It’s as though he doesn’t strive to bring in a bigger audience, to convert nonbelievers if you will. He is uncompromising, difficult, and shuns those that don’t “understand” what he does. If it’s critically substandard, and the ratings all over the internet reflect that, I think people understand fine.

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