by Marjorie Baumgarten

Like Stella a few years ago, this new movie tells the story of how yet another black woman, Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise), jumps back in the game and gets her groove back. The characters' journeys are somewhat different, as are the two films' storytelling techniques. However, both movies' target audience is the same: urban black women who yearn for a good sudser and a laugh. Diary of a Mad Black Woman has enough suds to blow soap bubbles around anything in its path, but the movie's melodramatic strife is leavened with broad slapstick strokes, which creates a bizarrely uneven tone that requires viewers to shift tears of empathy to tears of laughter -- often within the same scene. Despite the film's hoary cliches and the bad drag of actor/screenwriter Tyler Perry -- who plays three roles in the film, one of whom is the outsized Madea, a Martin Lawrence Big Momma type who packs a pistol -- viewers seem to respond to Helen's ups and downs with vocal squeals of enthusiasm and disbelief. "Oh no, she didn't!" we all seem to squawk in unison at one or another of Helen's doormat decisions, thus ratifying our communal experience.

Even though audiences might have a fun time while viewing Diary of a Mad Black Woman, that does not make it a good movie - just one that shows potential for ongoing camp value. On the eve of their 20th wedding anniversary, Helen's husband, Charles (Harris, of The Practice), literally throws her out of their Atlanta mansion in favor of a younger, more fertile wife. At a loss, Helen returns to her grandmother Madea's home, which Madea also shares with her randy brother (also played by Perry). Madea shows Helen how to claim what is hers and then chainsaw the rest to bits, and eventually Helen finds new love with soulful Orlando (Moore). Yet more twists and turns are in store when Charles is shot and paralyzed by an angry client, a situation that leads Helen through more character shifts than Sybil. Cruelty, church redemption, miraculous healings of limbs and junkie relatives -- all have their moments onscreen. Accomplished video director Grant makes a clumsy debut as a feature director, bringing little sense of oversight to the proceedings. Elise effectively manages this role that requires her to shift on a dime from happy to sad, and the film provides a vivid showcase for Perry's instinctive talents. The movie does no service to veteran Tyson, though, and if one desires to see her on the screen again they're better off advised to go see Because of Winn-Dixie, which is also in current release. Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a shambling affair, but its mixture of suds and slapstick make it a slippery contender.

Publication date: 03/03/05

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