Tyler Perry probably wishes he'd been raised by a single mom. As he has said in interviews, his father, Emmitt, was abusive and once beat him so hard with a vacuum hose that his skin felt flayed. In response, the writer-director reveres mothers, synthesizing his mom and aunt into the all-powerful Madea, and here in The Single Moms Club elevating them to the wisecracking goddesses of the hearth.
The club consists of Waffle House waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown), cowed divorcee Esperanza (Zulay Henao), wannabe writer May (Nia Long), fierce publishing executive Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and former trophy wife Hillary (Amy Smart), whose lawyer ex has just quit funding her maid, Christina (Angela Matemotja), i.e., the substitute mom her daughter loves best. All they have in common is bratty kids enrolled in a posh private school. Each of their preteens has been caught smoking or spray painting and will be expelled unless their folks drop everything to throw the school's annual fundraiser, the Belfast Dance. (Suggested tagline: It's gonna be explosive!)
Though we live in 2014, the principal asks in wonderment, "Where are the fathers?" It's an odd moment particularly because Tyler Perry loves skewering well-meaning white people who won't just come out and say what they think. He writes in code: The blond principal explaining the socio-economic gulf between the mothers as due to the school's "generous scholarships for all walks of life," Jan's aghast claim that she's not rejecting May's novel for being too black as she would "never say that," even as her head nods that, yes, dearie, this book is too marginal to sell. The flipside of this politesse is Perry's conviction that every white person is just a tongue-biting racist. Jan is shocked to find Brown's Lytia in Hillary's home, and the script has McLendon-Covey screech that Lytia must be trying to rob the joint — an embarrassing scene that McLendon-Covey, a Groundlings alumnus, squares up to and endures.
Perry worships strong women who speak their mind, and so Single Moms Club is a love letter to comedian Cocoa Brown. As the outspoken projects mom who's trying to keep her youngest three from following the older two to jail, Brown is loud and uncompromising — poor McLendon-Covey has to refer to her as a "big black wall" — and the best yet of Perry's hard-to-love heroines. I'd watch a whole movie about her hostile romance with Terry Crews as a Pepé Le Pew-type who tries to woo her with stolen funeral flowers and, when that fails, slams her against his truck and shoves his tongue in her mouth. Crews is a human cartoon who's made for Perry's brand of comedy, and Brown can play both cartoon and the second coming of Joan Crawford. Please greenlight this immediately. (At his pace, Perry will have it in theaters by Labor Day.)
It takes an hour for the ladies to actually form their Single Moms Club, a babysitting pool where one watches the entire brood while the other four hit strip clubs and do karaoke. ("The Babysitters Club" was already taken.) Perry is sensitive to their need for release. He gets these ladies; better still, he sees their struggles as worthy of the screen — at last, here's heroism without the cape. The kids are uncommunicative, the money is never enough, and their baby daddies are jerks, addicts and inmates, or in Jan's case, a vial of semen. But even the executive has to wrestle with the patriarchy, specifically an undermining co-worker who wants to poach her partnership at the firm by stressing her outside responsibilities. Insisting to him and their boss that women like her can have it all, he rolls his eyes and smirks, "Of course they can."
Perry plays to an audience that he believes wants to see its lives reflected onscreen, only with better hair and dressier sweatpants. Still, the crowd I saw this with had its bullshit detectors turned on: They snickered when the kids gave canned, sweet speeches and guffawed when the hunky stranger next door volunteered to watch a houseful of children. Still, it's a sweet fantasy that the moms will each be pursued by a kid-friendly Prince Charming, including Perry himself as T.K., a divorced father of two who likes to fish and fix cars. We want them to have it all, even as we know there's something off in an ode to single motherdom that presents each one with a dude.
Perry's becoming more natural on camera — here, he actually passes for an actor — though he can't resist writing himself as the world's most perfect man and then asking the cast to squeeze in extra compliments. (Squeals Brown, "Damn, T.K., you fine!") And when he awkwardly cautions his sons, "Hey, be careful with the knives!" the ladies in the audience laughed so hard at him I couldn't hear the next two lines.
As ever, he has the last laugh. This is How Stella Got Her Groove Back, for the Pop-Tart crowd, a wish-fulfillment weepie that not only narrowly clears Perry's low bar, thanks mostly to McLendon-Covey and Brown, but has already sold the TV sitcom rights to Oprah.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.