Most of Tyler Perry’s movies conjure up a familiar showbiz tone and cadence; it’s as if a ’70s inner-city sitcom and Waiting to Exhale had a shrill, squalling baby. But Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds is another story. It’s not a comedy — in fact, it lacks even the token Perry touch of comic relief (e.g., Madea or anyone else spouting impolite epigrams). Its mood is quiet, earnest, stately-bordering-on-somber. Perry himself, in executive glasses, neckties folded into plush Windsor knots, and designer stubble that perfectly matches his close-cropped hair, plays Wesley Deeds, a fifth-generation Ivy League graduate who’s the wealthy CEO of his family’s vastly tentacled computer corporation. Wesley has what seems like an ideal existence: sky-view San Francisco penthouse, attractive yuppie fiancée (Gabrielle Union), and the impeccably ordered schedule of someone who’s got the whole world in his hands. Actually, though, it’s the world that has Wesley in its hands. He has spent his entire life living up to what he thinks is expected of him. And so he doesn’t, you know, know who he is.
Enter his opposite number: Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton), a down-on-her-luck single mom trying to scrape together an existence by working as a janitor. Early on, she’s evicted from her apartment and is forced to live out of her car — a situation that gets more desperate by the minute, until she meets Wesley late one night while cleaning his office. He takes her out for pizza, they talk about their lives, and he begins to feel…something.
Good Deeds, with its Frank Capra-gone-Good Will Hunting title, is lucky to have Thandie Newton, easily the most gifted actress ever to have starred in a Tyler Perry movie. She plays Lindsey with a silently bitter, snappish anxiety, and there isn’t a false note in her performance — at least, not until the scene in which she has to give Tyler Perry a back rub, and we realize that this programmatic relationship is going to bloom into a romance. At that point, it’s as if the movie has turned into a tender sociological love story entitled When the One Percent Met the Bottom Ten Percent. Perry and Newton simply don’t spark any chemical heat. And maybe that’s because Perry, much as I never get tired of seeing him play Madea, is a rather stolid actor when he’s portraying humorless bourgeois types. He’s hemmed in by his linebacker physique and, in a funny way, by his softly inexpressive Teddy Bear features.
At one point, in the middle of a posh party, there’s some clothes-tearing fisticuffs between Wesley and his short-fused ne’er-do-well brother, Walter (Brian White), the two of whom make a temporary public disgrace of themselves in order to remind us, perhaps, that this still is a Tyler Perry movie. Mostly, though, Perry holds back on the finger-wagging, eye-bulging tantrums. There were moments when I was grateful for that. There were others, like the kissy scenes between Perry and Newton, when I began to miss them. B-