An insignificant spoiler alert for those who have yet to see Gone Girl, David Fincher’s intricately dark mystery movie: Tyler Perry is superb in it.
Yes, that Tyler Perry: the man behind such lowbrow fare as Temptation, Madea’s Witness Protection, and Why Did I Get Married Too?, whose work has been described by Spike Lee as “coonery and buffoonery,” and whose films have been labeled by critics as “queasy,” “boring,” “artless,” and “wretched.” If you come expecting that, you’re in for a surprise. Perry’s dazzling, hotshot Johnnie Cochran-esque attorney Tanner Bolt––a man nicknamed “the patron saint of wife killers”––almost steals the show from Gone Girl’s two leads, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
Again, Tyler Perry? Well, for all the rightful distaste his projects get from high-brow film circles, he’s not always a terrible actor; say what you will about Madea, but Perry can pull off the irritable cross-dressing elderly shtick well. Still, this performance doesn’t call for slapstick humor. It’s a “prestige” role, one Perry himself isn’t sure how he got.
“It’s so great, I don’t know how the hell I got in it,” he told Jimmy Fallon last week, echoing a similar sentiment Perry haters likely held last September, when Fincher first announced he would be appearing in the film. Even more bizarre: the Dragon Tattoo director allegedly cast Perry after seeing his miserable 2012 crime movie Alex Cross (OK, that movie features some terrible Tyler Perry acting).
“He called and said, ‘I've got this role that I'd love for you to do,’” said Perry, after being asked about the Alex Cross connection in an interview with Vulture. “And I was like, ‘Are you sure?’”
That story differs a bit when told by Fincher. According to the director, he knew Perry was right for the role after traveling down to Atlanta to search for locations to shoot The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
“[Perry] has a huge campus with seven or eight soundstages,” recalled Fincher, in Time Out Hong Kong. “As we walked up to the main building, I saw this guy on the roof, in a tracksuit with a radio-controlled airplane. He was flying it around in circles. Someone then said to us, ‘Mr. Perry will be right with you.’ I thought, ‘That's who Tanner Bolt should be.’ He's the guy who puts you on hold while he finishes flying his remote-controlled airplane.”
Fincher's instincts were right. Perry’s Bolt is witty, slick, brilliant, and convincing. Like any high-powered attorney who charges $100,000 for a retainer, Bolt always seems to be one step ahead of the competition. He owns every location he’s in––TV sets, crime scenes, interrogation rooms––while having the unenviable job of convincing a man who may or not be responsible for his wife’s disappearance to step away from the ledge.
Yet his demeanor is more confident than cocky. It’s not an easy assignment, but Perry finds the balance. He’s able to look through the absurdity of it all, and even provide light commentary along the way. One scene in particular sees him pelting Affleck’s Nick Dunne with gummy bears in order to better prepare him for a nationally televised interview.
If I had told you before Gone Girl came out that there would be a scene where Tyler Perry throws gummies at Ben Affleck, you probably would have laughed in my face. Preconceived notions notwithstanding, the praise for Perry’s work in Gone Girl has been unanimous––even the negative reviews point out how good he is. This is a complete 180 for a man who was once described as “the KFC of black cinema.” Indeed, few filmmakers get as much bile and vitriol spewed their way as the man behind Madea. He is today’s go-to critical punching bag for film writers.
For what it’s worth, I agree with the criticism. Tyler Perry’s movies are not good; they’re often unfunny and nonsensical. In a nutshell, it’s the overall direction and writing that’s lacking––meandering character arcs, clichéd storylines. It all adds up to one big, stinky pile of flaming garbage. Even more difficult to swallow: Perry likes to put his name in front of a lot of his projects. It’s not I Don’t Want to Do Wrong, it’s Tyler Perry’s I Don’t Want to Do Wrong.
Yet even Perry knows he couldn’t have pulled off a film like Gone Girl. “Hell no,” he said, after being asked the question in a recent interview. “Could not have directed it and would not have wanted to direct this because of the amount of pressure you would get from the fans of the book. I don’t want to take on that. This is in the right hands of who could do it.”
For now, it’s worth savoring what Perry and Fincher have accomplished here. Like most Perry critics, I don’t believe he will suddenly transform himself into an acting powerhouse for future projects now that he’s put in career-best work on screen. But then again, maybe we shouldn’t count him out. He did spend months observing David Fincher.
“For me, it was the greatest learning experience that I could have had,” Perry told the Nashville Scene, about his time working on Gone Girl. “I could not imagine learning more in any other place from any other director.”
Or, put another way, as Perry did in an interview with GQ.
“David Fincher is a film director. Okay? I'm just a storyteller who picked up the camera and said, ‘Point it in that direction.’”