Good Deeds: Rich man, poor girl. Could never work.

February 26, 2012

Good Deeds
Grade: 83
Cast: Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, Brian White, Rebecca Romijn, Jamie Kennedy, Eddie Cibrian, Jordenn Thompson, Gabrielle Union
Director: Tyler Perry
Rating: PG-13, for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material
Running time: 111 minutes

By David Dewitt for the New York Times

She’s poor and in a mess, but emotional and honest. He’s rich and in control, but conscientious and restrained. If only someone could bring these two unhappy folks together …

They did, in Pretty Woman, the film that made Julia Roberts a star and served Richard Gere pretty well, too. It’s happening again in Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, but with a smidgen of the humor and a much weightier moral reach. If Pretty Woman is a Disneyfied tale of the Cinderella prostitute and her corporate-raider prince, Good Deeds offers bullet points from Charles Dickens and Oprah Winfrey in sketching out a similar but oh-so-serious fairy tale, this time of a homeless janitor and her wealthy savior.

Good Deeds honors goodness, which isn’t at all a bad thing, and it’s not without moments of genuine feeling. But by the film’s end, after watching a seemingly infinite number of dour close-ups of sober self-evaluation, I felt bludgeoned by thesis-driven dialogue and noble intentions.

That’s a shame because Perry — here a producer, the director, the writer and the star — has vision and talent and deserves to reach an audience with his relationship films (For Colored Girls, for one). As the protagonist Wesley Deeds, he nails the flat mien of his character’s depression, trapped in a prison of good-son duties. If only Perry the director had encouraged Perry the actor to flavor his performance with anything beyond on-the-nose gravity. The use of a bad-son brother, played by Brian White with staccato anger, not only has its own problems, it also underlines the unrelieved obviousness of Wesley’s decency.

Thankfully, the women of Good Deeds often rise above that approach. Phylicia Rashad, as Wesley’s status-conscious mother, cuts like a sterling-silver knife, but she registers a range of subtle emotions before the stabbing (or the crying, which to no one’s surprise she does by the end).

As Lindsey, the life-changer for Wesley Deeds (as in Pretty Woman, she saves him right back), Thandie Newton deserves applause as well. This lauded actress often rises above her material, and she does so repeatedly in the first half of the film, with desperation but brittle pride as she loses her home and security.

Newton’s work with the young Jordenn Thompson, as her daughter, is touching; together they make all cliches of troubled mothers and sweet daughters seem forgettable, because this pair has truthful pathos.

Once Lindsey becomes the project for Wesley, however, Good Deeds is on a familiar train, and we can guess every stop along the way. Well, not quite: I didn’t anticipate how much the sentimentality of the closing scenes, set to Richard Marx’s cloying 1989 hit “Right Here Waiting,” would make me cringe.


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