The critic in me says that "I Can Do Bad All By Myself" is cloying, manipulative and worthy of several eye rolls. Its plot would be better suited for cable rather than a theatrical release, but that could also be a blanket statement directed at most Tyler Perry-directed features. All the same, there is something honest and sincere about many of the emotions here, a toughness of viewpoints and personalities that transcend the usual mugging Perry can be guilty of including. An in-title-only adaptation of his 2002 play, "Dear God, Are All Men Dogs?: I Can Do Bad All By Myself," the film concentrates on drama over comedy this time around (save for when Madea, in a relatively peripheral part, is around) and features five or six beguiling musical numbers interspersed throughout. Taking lead acting duties is Taraji P. Henson, at the time riding high from her Oscar nomination for 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
." Her performance is complicated and uncompromising, arguably worthy of a better script to serve her committed turn.
April (Taraji P. Henson) is a wayward lounge singer, floundering from day to day, drinking too much, and putting more energy into pleasing married boyfriend Randy (Brian White) than he's worth. With April's sister dead and her estranged mother suddenly missing, 16-year-old niece Jennifer (Hope Olaide Wilson) and younger nephews Manny (Kwesi Boakye) and Byron (Frederick Siglar) show up on her doorstep. They have been caught breaking into Madea's (Tyler Perry) house, and April is the only adult relative they've got to take care of them. April is dead-set against it at firstshe has no interest in kidsbut becomes a little more sympathetic when she observes the constant struggle they've faced to stick together. In order to take on the responsibility of legal guardianship, however, April is going to have to grow up herself. Getting to know the kind and caring boarder she has recently taken in, handyman Sandino (Adam Rodriguez), might be the first step in inspiring her to get her own life in order.
April is a challenging character to embraceshe is immature and self-destructivebut her arc as portrayed by Taraji P. Henson makes her feel real rather than like a cookie-cutter creation. It is obvious from frame one that she is destined to come around and eventually own up to the bad choices she's made, but the getting-there is affecting and hard-won. As a character study, "I Can Do Bad All By Myself" is worthwhile and even thoughtful, despite Perry's inability to resist overstating his faith-based messages. As her no-good boyfriend, Randy, Brian White (2009's "Fighting
") is believable at playing a really awful person; Adam Rodriguez (2012's "Magic Mike
") exhibits a personable, good-looking spark as Sandino, and Hope Olaide Wilson navigates some tough, tricky territory as niece Jennifer. The film's best scene is Mary J. Blige's (2012's "Rock of Ages
") heartrending stage performance of the title songa key turning point for April late in the second act. "I Can Do Bad All By Myself" is too pat by a half during the finale, but Tyler Perry shows a maturity as a filmmaker that would pave the way for arguably his best picture, 2010's "For Colored Girls