Five women from disparate walks of life find common ground as single parents in "Tyler Perry's The Single Moms Club," one of the best products to roll off the prolific multihyphenate's Atlanta-based assembly line, largely absent the pandering humor and finger-wagging moralism that have bedeviled many of Perry's earlier (if undeniably popular) efforts. Perry is by now a well-established brand who knows what his audience wants, but this gentle, touching and sometimes quite funny portrait of female solidarity (think "Waiting to Exhale" by way of "9 to 5") manages to play to Perry's base while simultaneously broadening it. Disenfranchised distaff moviegoers eager to prove Cate Blanchett's Oscar speech right ought to line up in droves.
The generally low-key, ingratiating vibe of Perry's latest is reflected in Perry himself, who gives a nicely understated supporting performance here as a divorced father of two who ends up wooing one of the single moms of the title. Her name is May (Nia Long), a local newspaper reporter, aspiring novelist and mother to a 12-year-old son whose father is nowhere in sight. She and the other moms meet-cute in a parent-teacher conference organized by the elite prep school their children collectively attend. The kids have been caught hanging out on campus after school hours, smoking cigarettes and tagging the walls with graffiti, and have been placed on a kind of academic probation. But there's a catch: as part of the disciplinary deal, the mothers must serve as the organizers for the school's annual fundraiser dance. Thus the Single Moms Club is born.
Perry depicts the school as one of those idyllic, post-racial, post-classist oases of learning that now exist in some cities, and the mothers' forced booster club comes to mirror it. This is probably Perry's first cast to be comprised almost equally of black, white and Latino performers, whose characters run the gamut from the service industry to the executive suite -- a canny but never calculating gesture that lends the movie a far greater breadth of human experience than is typically reflected by mainstream Hollywood.
Sometimes in Perry's movies (like last year's abysmal "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor), the personal and professional lives of the characters seem almost arbitrary, as if selected at random by Perry's screenwriting software, and the actors themselves don't quite seem to believe in what they're playing. But the characters of "Single Moms Club" are generally smarter, deeper and more fully thought through. They include starchy publishing exec Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), so uptight that her posterior seems to be perfect-bound; wealthy, "Blue Jasmine"-ish socialite Hillary (Amy Smart), cleaned out by her lawyer hubby in a messy divorce; Esperanza (Zulay Henao), whose sleazy car-salesman ex (Eddie Cibrian) is trying to turn their daughter against her; and harried waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown), who has three young kids at home, two grown ones in jail, and is terrified of repeating the mistakes of her youth.
Perry draws some of these roles more fully than others. (And seriously, who in 2014 names a Latina character Esperanza Luego?) By far the richest and most affecting is Lytia, who's played with tremendous depth of feeling by standup comic Brown as a woman hardened by a lifetime of bad decisions, who overcompensates by raising her pre-teen son in an overprotective bubble and shutting herself off from the world (including a lovestruck suitor played by the joyful Terry Crews). Less effective is "Bridesmaids" alum McLendon-Covey, who acts Jan in a more exaggerated comic register than the rest of the performances, though her storyline does touch on one of the movie's most pointed themes: the open discrimination mothers can face in the male-dominated 24/7 workplace. But when the five women share the screen, they have an easygoing, improvisational chemistry, and their conversations feel candid and knowing on matters of work, motherhood and the ongoing battle for gender equality.
Perry hasn't fully divested himself of his bad habits -- specifically, his penchant for reductive characterizations and tidy, third-act resolutions. If the women in "Single Moms Club" are refreshingly complicated and lifelike, the men are almost uniformly sexist pigs, addicts and criminals, or else sensitive metrosexual helpmeets who seduce these single ladies with the promise of being everything the fathers of their children turned out not to be. None of which seems likely to bother Perry's loyalists, or even some newcomers to the fold, who may be so delighted at seeing a movie transgress this many deeply ingrained Hollywood codes they won't sweat the small stuff.
Perry, who hails from a theatrical background, has always had something of a rudimentary point-and-shoot directing style, with accompanying mid-'90s sitcom production values. But much like its characters, "Single Moms Club" has a looser, more lived-in feel to it, and there are subtle indications that, for Perry (collaborating here for the ninth time with Polish-born d.p. Alexander Gruszynski), the camera is no longer so foreign an object.
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