Tyler Perry's Single Moms Club has the distinct honor of being the least outrageous, most competent, and lowest grossing film (so far) that Perry has ever made. Single Moms Club had the lowest opening weekend box office haul of any Perry film even as critics gave it a lukewarm response. And by that we mean it wasn't as bad as everyone thought it would be. The AV Club called it "atypically competent," "boring," and "the closest thing Perry has produced to a conventionally well-made film." Vulture was briefly optimistic about how the film might go:
These are some great actresses, and with writer-director-producer Perry displaying some rare focus, you’re intrigued at first by the possibility of watching them interact for a couple of hours. It doesn’t last.
Variety was especially kind, and praised the film as "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," we usually see.
So what does it mean when three male film critics enjoy — or almost enjoy — a film geared towards working class women of color? First, that Perry is trying to broaden his fan base, while also losing some of his original followers (as one TylerPerry.com message board commenter wrote "Where is the Christian message? Why are you molding into more of the world?") That would explain the lower ticket sales. It also means some of the Perry "magic" — the hackneyed, moralistic, homophobic, anti-feminist slant of his earlier works — is fading.
Despite being one of the most problematic writer/directors in Hollywood, he's also one of the few people hiring black actors for starring roles that don't involve being a) the maid or b) a slave. He's also targeting a specific demographic — "churchgoing, working-class black women," as one film expert put it in Entertainment Weekly in 2009 — that is largely ignored by major cinemas. But his films also tend to be offensive. Last year, when Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor came out, Joshua Alston at The AV Club noted that Temptation, with its twist — the cheating wife, Judith, gets HIV — wasn't the first Perry film with offensive subtext, but the idea of HIV/AIDS as a punishment for immorality was the sort of "specific jaw-droppingly offensive subtext that makes white critics feel like they’re on solid enough ground to read Perry the riot act."
Single Moms Club lacks that shock factor, and the world is a better place for it. Just how Perry-esque is his latest box office flop, given his earlier flair for the melodramatic? Here's our take, on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being Citizen Kane and 10 being a marathon of all the Madea movie.
The main sin in a Perry movie is almost always cheating. The evil husband in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) has a child by another woman and throws his wife out. In Why Did I Get Married? (2006) — about a group of married couples working through marital problems — two of the husbands are cheating. The Family That Preys (2008) is about a woman who cheats on her husband with her boss, played by Kathy Bates' son. Temptation (2013) ends with Jurnee Smollet-Bell's character going to buy HIV medicine after contracting the disease from her fling/rapist (as Jezebel pointed out at the time).
In Single Moms Club, one mom has a controlling ex-husband she's hiding her new boyfriend from. Another has an ex-husband who cut off her alimony. — 6/10
Criticism of "uppity," educated black women
There are three types of women in Perry films: women who are moral, women who are immoral but get back on track, and women who are immoral and get punished for it. That last type of woman tends to be well educated or upper class and snobby about it. In The Family That Preys, the cheating wife works a big firm, while her husband is a blue collar worker. And from Entertainment Weekly:
In Madea Goes to Jail, for instance, the ambitious light-skinned female district attorney (Ion Overman) who puts Madea behind bars is not only a snob but a conniving, corrupt criminal. The most sympathetic character, by contrast, turns out to be a darker-skinned, strung-out prostitute (Keshia Knight Pulliam).
This time around, the "uppity" character is Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a white literary agent and career woman who rejects May's (Nia Long) manuscript for being "too black." — 8/10
HIV as a punishment for immorality
In addition to Temptation, Perry invented an HIV plot line for his version of For Colored Girls (2010). Jo, played by Janet Jackson, gets HIV from her husband, who is cheating on her with men. As Louis Peitzman at BuzzFeed noted, HIV is painted as a sinner's disease, and Jo is also punished for knowing her husband is gay and ignoring it. Perry left his prejudices at the door this time around. — 0/10
In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Helen forgives her husband after he's almost killed by a client and takes care of him. In Temptation, Judith's replacement — her ex-husband's more Christian wife — lets her buy HIV medicine in the pharmacy she and her husband run.
Jan's character is kind of a racist and they still let her join the club. — 5/10
In I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009) April (played by Taraji P. Henson) takes in her sister's kids, which upsets her married boyfriend. The Single Moms Club is about five single moms. — 10/10
Woman redeemed by love of a man
April is redeemed by the scruffy handyman who moved into her basement and takes care of her nieces when she's too selfish too. In The Single Moms Club, none of the moms are single by the end. — 10/10
This is a slightly more mainstream, less Bible thumping Tyler Perry movie, but his mark is still on it. He really is "molding more into the world" — a world where women still need husbands and family values matter, but not every plot line is a Bible parable implausibly brought to life. Single Moms Club is still pretty bad, but it could have been worse.