Control Nathan Rabin: Tyler Perry's The Marriage Counselor: The Play
I suspect it will surprise none of you to discover that I am more than a little obsessed with Tyler Perry. Then again, I am obsessed with everything, but I am particularly fixated on artists like Perry, who have managed to reached the very apex of commercial success while still doggedly possessing an amateur level of talent.
Perry is a total auteur. Unfortunately, one of the consistent hallmarks of his plays, television shows and movies is that they’re pretty much all terrible. When I worked as a film critic, I saw and reviewed a lot of his movies, primarily because no one else wanted to. Hell, I even attended an academic symposium on the man and his work that was half appreciative, half full of righteous rage and indignation at the deeply problematic nature of his aesthetic.
Then I stopped being a film critic about two years ago and moved from Chicago to Perry’s backyard in Atlanta, Georgia and consequently also stopped watching Tyler Perry movies. My wife is morbidly curious enough that she’s accompanied me to three Gathering of the Juggalos despite a pronounced distaste for both the music and the people, but even with her, “Hey, what say we watch A Madea Halloween tonight?” is a no-go.
Basically, I’m looking for an excuse to delve back into Tyler Perry’s weird world. So for the latest Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living saints who donate to this website’s Patreon page an opportunity to choose between two equally dire options I must see and then write about, I figured I would throw Tyler Perry into the mix.
Only this time there was a twist: the two options, Tyler Perry’s The Marriage Counselor and Madea Gets A Job aren’t even motion pictures. No, they're filmed plays designed to exploit a seemingly insatiable audience so vast and so loyal that they’re willing to put down good money for the film version of The Marriage Counselor, and also rent or buy the filmed version of the play, and if they’re feeling particularly obsessive, maybe even buy tickets to see the play live when it comes to their town. And tee-shirts! I imagine obsessive of this sorts would also want the Marriage Counselor touring company tee shirt as well.
I chose The Marriage Counselor as one of the options because Perry’s movies have so much in common that they tend to bleed together into one screamingly over-the-top, ham-fisted melodrama about the Godly goodness of church-going true believers and the bottomless evil of the earthly and wicked.
The Marriage Counselor, however stands out not because it deviates from Perry’s tried and true template but rather because it represents his sensibility in its purest, more ridiculously hyperbolic form. Perry has made a lot of terrible, terrible movies but The Marriage Counselor is easily one of his worst.
So of course I was eager to revisit it. I was glad audiences chose it over Madea Gets A Job, even if it meant re-experiencing one of Perry’s most ridiculously moralistic melodramas in a form that was a half hour longer, featured loads of gospel songs not featured in the feature film, and closed with Tyler Perry lovingly addressing his audience and discussing both his deep emotional connection to what is known as the Chitlin’ Circuit and recently being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people and having dinner with John McCain and Rupert Murdoch.
The movie, or rather filmed play, opens with one of my all-time favorite cliches. It begins by defining both “marriage” (“the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife”) and “counselor” (“a person who gives advice or counseling”). Sadly, it does not begin with “Webster’s defines marriage as,” my favorite version of this trope, but it comes damn close while further underlying the weird hereto normative nature of Perry’s universe, where gender roles are rigidly enforced and homosexuality and gender-non-conformity essentially do not exist even though this universe was created by the most legendary, powerful cross-dresser this side of Milton Berle.
In Tyler Perry world, moral ambiguity does not exist either. There’s no room or space for shades of grey, only black and white, and while protagonist Dr. Judith Jackson (Tamar Davis) doesn’t initially appear to be evil, she is weak, and disrespects a good, proud, decent man who just wants to do right by her, so it’s not exactly a shock when she goes from tempted and confused to sneeringly evil seemingly overnight.
The heroine/anti-heroine/villainess begins the movie semi-happily married to Roger Jackson, a church-going accountant who adores his wife, as well as the Lord (you gotta do both in a Tyler Perry production, or you’re an evil piece of shit who should get AIDS) but because he is a humble bean-counter, can’t afford to spoil his way the way he’d like to.
Then one day a slithering snake enters Roger and Dr. Jackson’s world in the form of Ronald, a wealthy, belligerent retired NBA superstar. Ronald has an evil Spock beard and looks like Blacula if he was a Center for the Harlem Globetrotters. Everything about his screams “Bad” and not bad meaning good.
Ronald would need to have 6-6-6 tattooed on his forehead and wear a skin-tight red leather outfit with horns and a tail to more directly and dramatically broadcast his evil. It’s tempting to say that Jesus sent God-fearing Roger Jackson into Judith’s life and the devil sent Ronald, but I’m not entirely sure that Ronald, in addition to his many other terrible qualities, isn’t also literally Satan.
Ronald swaggers into his former flame’s life under the ridiculous pretense that he’s seeking marital counseling for himself and his wife. But from the beginning it’s achingly apparent that all this sinister motherfucker wants to do is seduce his would-be marriage counselor, break up her marriage, ruin her life and maybe give her AIDS. Reader, Ronald is not a good man.
The movie’s primary villain stops just short of promising to destroy the doctor’s life after sexing her up but she cannot resist temptation. Tamar conveys her character’s intense sexual attraction to the wrong man by having her perpetually seem on the verge of either achieving a powerful orgasm just by virtue of being in Ronald’s presence (he’s so virile no contact is even required) or fainting dead away from being so dizzyingly intoxicated with lust. To use a slang term I plan to use in every piece I write from now on, Judith is straight up dickmatized by this malevolent figure, and pays a disproportionate price for her lust.
The confused Doctor tries to resist but Ronald makes some very salient points to her about how her husband is weak and little and also does not have a lot of money, whereas he is large and powerful, and has not only “fuck you” money but "private jet money" and “Buy the new flame a Rolls Royce money on a whim” money. Unfortunately, he also has "finance my rapacious, decades-long cocaine addiction" money.
The Doctor’s husband, alas, has “maybe I can treat you to Red Lobster next month” money, so it isn’t long until Judith is giving her loving, handsome, nice, God-fearing husband the boot so she can go kick it with Satan—I mean Ronald.
In a seemingly unrelated development, the good, hard-working, God-loving woman who cleans the Doctor’s office tells her that she won’t be able to work for her anymore because her HIV is getting worse, and also she’s on the run from her lunatic ex-husband, who beat her up and is addicted to cocaine and infected her with H.I.V. Gee, that sounds like a terrible guy. A real devil even. The play (and eventual movie) handle H.I.V with the sophistication, delicacy, realism and dramatic heft with which The Room treats Cancer and Go Ask Alice treats casual drug experimentation.
Why on earth is this seemingly irrelevant and random character in the film? And for the love of God, why would a cleaning woman tell one of her clients her entire sordid life story? Well, reader, I hope you are sitting down, and that your monocle is affixed tight, because what I am about to tell you will shock you to your very core. It may even shake your sense of reality.
What if I told you that this random-ass Jesus-loving cleaning lady with the horrible, coke-snorting, abusive ex-husband was, in fact, Ronald’s ex-wife? That’s right: the horrible, coke-snorting, abusive ex-husband the cleaning lady is so happy to have escaped is none other than Ronald.
Cue dramatic music!
Remember when I told you that Ronald was bad? Well, it turns out he’s real bad. In fact, he wasn’t even married when he pretended to be interested in marriage counseling, and that’s maybe the ninth worst thing he does over the course of the film, and he honestly doesn’t even have much screen time, but he's very efficient and economical in his evil.
The filmed play’s fierce, creepy moralism requires the doctor to suffer, and suffer greatly for straying from conventional morality and giving in to temptation. So even though she initially emerges as the story’s protagonist, as soon as she cheats with Ronald we’re encouraged to judge and condemn the doctor rather than identify with her.
The film’s conception of masculinity is rigid and regressive. Roger, for example, is a nice, nice guy, a consummate mensch but he’s also coded as passive and emasculated. Ronald is continually denigrating Roger’s manliness, both to Judith and to Roger himself, so the play has him redeem himself and proves his masculinity, and thus, worthiness, to the world both by having him and his elderly, perpetually stoned father beat the living crap out of Ronald, the towering Adonis his wife left him for, and by having Roger ultimately choose not to take Judith back after she realizes the error of her ways.
The Marriage Counselor is really two vastly different project stapled together. One project is a sleazy, sordid, hyperventilating melodrama about a weak and sinful woman who strays and pays a terrible cost for her sins. The other is a wacky, exceedingly broad ensemble comedy about the kooky characters in the Doctor’s orbit, from her wise-cracking, comic relief stoner father-in-law (who I found genuinely amusing and a real scene stealer) to her various clients, who include a Pastor married to an exotic dancer and a man who is no longer sexually attracted to his wife because she gained a lot of weight.
The play is consequently an even bigger tonal train wreck than Perry’s theatrical films. The protagonist regularly disappears from the screen for extended periods so that the play can focus on the crowd-pleasing antics and shenanigans of its rowdier, more comic elements, like the stoner father-in-law who steps in for his AWOL daughter-in-law in a group therapy sequence that seems to last a good twenty minutes, and involves more than one song.
Maybe it’s just that I’ve spent so much time away from Tyler Perry Land, but I found The Marriage Counselor: The Play fascinating and much better than the film adaptation. I still found the gender politics reprehensible and its harsh moralizing repellent but this kind of storytelling and story makes so much more sense as a play and as a musical than it does as a straight cinematic drama.
Marriage Counselor: The Play isn't good. Oh God no. But it is bad in a way that’s at once specific to Perry as a creator and unique from his proper motion pictures. And I was touched by the bond Perry has with his audience, and the love they have for him, even when he’s not in Madea drag.
“Look what God has done” Perry tells the crowd of his success in his post-play monologue. It’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m not entirely sure God is behind Perry’s success and the success of god-awful projects like these. It might actually be the doing of that other dude, the guy who acts disconcertingly like Ronald, but maybe even worse.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and enjoy patron-only rewards like one Patron-only Control Nathan Rabin a month over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace