When Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) is unceremoniously dumped by Charles, her power-attorney husband of 18 years, she finds solace, strength, vengeance and ultimately grace courtesy of her extended Atlanta family. Diary of a Mad Black Woman is ostensibly Helen's story of renewal -- the stuff of a 100 Lifetime projects -- but the film's raucous energy is all by way of Madea, Helen's sassy, authority-flaunting, gun-totin' granny (as seen on the film's poster) who takes granddaughter under her prodigious, Southern-fried wing.
Darren R. Grant, a prolific pop-music video lenser, makes his directorial debut here, but Diary is clearly in the hands of one-man band Tyler Perry: Besides playing three substantial roles, including the well-padded Madea, Perry wrote the screenplay (adapted in part from his earlier stage plays), composed the music, and even lent his own Atlanta mansion as a set.
Diary is haphazard buffet of a movie, with something on the platter for everyone. The film careens from melodrama to inspirational pep talk to gangsta court drama; from slapstick comedy to script-o-matic romance; from anti-drug cluck-clucking to a pot-smoking-seniors scene played for laughs; and from an Electric Slide throw-down to a full-throated gospel conversion. The film even manages to find space to completely invert its premise, turning the passive put-upon Helen into a vindictive, cruel caricature (though not very convincingly).
Like a casserole, a lot of Diary is simply filler, something to hold the space between the film's crowd-pleasing tastier morsels. It's not highbrow, but there's riotous hootin' and hollerin' to be had when Madea shakes her big, fat fake ass or when raunchy old Grandpa Joe (Perry again) cuts a fart during dinner. And who doesn't love a villain? When Charles (Steve Harris) tosses Helen out of their home -- on their anniversary (no!) -- so he can install his bitchy white mistress and their kids (oh no!), the audience's pantomimed expressions of disbelief are pleasurable moments of group bonding that remind us some films are better as interactive exercises. (No, he didn't!)
Ironically, Helen's good romance is a lot less fun. Literally on her way to the curb, Helen meets Mr. Right -- Orlando (daytime-TV vet Shemar Moore) -- who is the impossible embodiment of what today's woman supposedly wants: He's a down-to-earth, blue-collar metal fabricator free of class striving, who nonetheless is gentle and loquacious with his heart's desire (if not particularly original: "I want to be your knight in shining armor"). Yet he resides in a metrosexual dream abode, complete with quality linens and a French press for coffee. He drives a pick-up, but opens the lady's door; he wears a tough-guy bandana, but it's clean and perfectly folded. He's a cuddler, not a mangler. Sigh. It will take Helen nearly two hours to get with this.
It's a weird quirk of the film that while the female audience is meant to root for Helen's transformation from bitter ex-wife to romantic ingénue, all mad (mala-)props go to Madea, a woman (who is actually a man, baby) who ain't changin' her bad behavior for no one, no how, no way. But that would be thinking about Diary too much, which is, despite its many narrative and thematic shortcomings, a mostly successful piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment.