Wesley Deeds was born into privilege. And to look at his life from the outside, it seems he has everything a man could want: a beautiful fiancée, a svelte silver Porsche, a suave high-rise apartment, a successful software company and a closet full of impeccably pressed Italian suits.
Wesley lacks for nothing … except a sense of ownership of himself. "I often wonder, am I living my own life, or the life I've been told to live?" he muses, reflecting on the reality that his every step has been scripted by his domineering mother, Wilimena, and his late father (who founded the company Wesley runs).
But as the dutiful older son, Wesley doesn't have time ponder such thoughts too deeply. After all, there's a wedding to plan and business deals to make, not to mention the responsibility of keeping his bitter, dissolute brother, Walter, on the straight and narrow.
Until, that is, Wesley meets Lindsey, who's pulling two shifts a day as a janitor in his building. Lindsey's life could hardly be more different than his. In the wake of her husband's death years before, Lindsey's life as a single mother to now 6-year-old Ariel has grown ever more tenuous. And when she gets evicted from her apartment, Lindsey's run out of options.
Wesley and Lindsey don't get off to a good start—to say the least. But ever so slowly, through a chance encounter here, a late-night conversation at the office there, Wesley begins to see just how desperate Lindsey's situation really is. And he offers to help. But what happens next may change his reality more than hers.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
For most of the movie Wesley faithfully executes all of the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him. That means long hours at work, seeking to please his demanding mother and managing Walter's weaknesses as best he can. (Walter, we learn, wanted to be CEO of the company their father left behind. But that mantle has fallen upon Wesley.)
But as the title of Tyler Perry's latest effort suggests, Good Deeds focuses on kindness—not necessarily commitment. And that's where Lindsey comes in. Through no fault of her own, Lindsey has ended up in a very vulnerable spot. She wants desperately to care for her daughter, but keeping a roof over their head, getting Ariel to school on time and holding down a job seem like mutually exclusive responsibilities. And mother and daughter soon find themselves sleeping in their van. Her existence for a time recalls scenes from Will Smith's Pursuit of Happyness, and Wesley becomes acutely tuned in to her travail. He takes them out for pizza. He establishes a day care facility for all of his employees. He even gives Lindsey access to a company apartment so that she can reclaim Ariel from Social Services.
He does all this in spite of the fact that Lindsey often—and bluntly, nay, crudely—tells him exactly what she think of him and his money. And after a while he actually comes to appreciate her hard-edged honesty, preferring it to the subservient silence he gets from everyone else around him.
Lindsey is reluctant to let her guard down and accept Wesley's help. But she finally does so because of his consistency and kindness. And because he asks for nothing in exchange. "Sometimes, even the best of us, we need a little help," Wesley says. And, slowly, a friendship, then a romance, blossoms.
Throughout, Wesley is struggling to come to terms with how much his entire life has been someone else's choice for him. And he's trying, for the first time, to break a cycle that's become unhealthy for him. (More on this from another angle below.)
Notably little for a Tyler Perry movie: Wesley's mother says she's needed the "patience of Job" to deal with Walter's shortcomings. Lindsey tells a worker at a homeless shelter that she's "praying you could hold a spot for me and my daughter."
Wesley and Natalie are living together, though it's four months before their wedding. And Wesley's mom's advice to Natalie is to "get busy." A number of scenes picture them in bed together. When drunk one night, Natalie wants Wesley to have sex with her on the couch. He hesitates, prompting a volley of criticism from Natalie about his lack of sexual spontaneity. Wesley wants her to close the curtains, but Natalie maintains she doesn't care who might see them.
Later, the couple does indeed have sex while pressed up against the apartment window. The camera shows them from a great distance outside the window, then moves in close and watches their explicit movements from the shoulders up.
Wesley and Lindsey share a quick kiss after a long motorcycle ride, which prompts him to tell her that he's engaged. He then tries to kiss her again later, but she pulls away. Only after Wesley has broken off his engagement to Natalie does the pair kiss again. Walter crudely asks Wesley if he's "screwing" Lindsey.
Two scenes picture Wesley in the shower. Both show bits of his shoulders and torso. Through foggy glass we see him put on his underwear. Several times Natalie wears only a bra or negligee. Scantily clad women dance at a nightclub.
A fight between Wesley and Walter gets physical; they hit, kick and grapple. Their mom slaps Walter's face after he tells her to "go to h‑‑‑."
At a homeless shelter, a man assaults Lindsey and Ariel as they sleep. We see him pawing at both of them as they scramble away.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 20 uses of "a‑‑." "H‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n" are each uttered a half-dozen times; "b‑‑ch" is meanly hurled three times. "P‑‑‑" is said once. Twice, Walter says that his family has "screwed" him. God's name is misused five or six times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Walter is likely an alcoholic. Alcohol is a catalyst for him angrily airing out his many grievances with his brother and his mother. And he's had several DUIs. We see him repeatedly drink hard liquor, and he's obviously drunk in a couple of scenes. At a restaurant, his mother complains about the drink he's having in the middle of the day, to which Walter replies, "If I've got to sit here with you, be glad it's not a mountain of cocaine."
Natalie also gets very drunk at a nightclub with her friends. She tells Wesley that it's the most intoxicated she's ever been. Other characters drink socially (at an engagement party and a work celebration).
Walter ends an argument by pulling out a pack of cigarettes and saying he's going outside for a smoke.
Other Negative Elements
In both specific discussion and in general tone, the movie wants us to know that crudeness, rudeness and meanness may need to be excused if they're executed in a spirit of truthfulness.
That, however, doesn't keep Lindsey, driven by desperation and shame, from repeatedly lying to her landlord, her daughter's teacher and Wesley about her circumstances. Walter's acidic bitterness leaks out in practically every scene. Raging at Lindsey, for example, he spits, "You p‑‑‑ a man off, he will get even." Natalie is venal and self-absorbed. She complains, for instance, that their housekeeper has dared to leave a blonde hair on her pillow. Wilimena is hard on Wesley. But she's downright nasty to Walter, who is a huge disappointment in her eyes.
To review a Tyler Perry movie is almost always an exercise in trying to reconcile competing ideas and themes. And here, even without any conflicting spiritual material to wade through, we still get a strenuous workout.
Forsaking the gaudy makeup and dowdy dresses of Madea for a season, Perry steps into the Armani suit of Wesley Deeds, and he does a lot of good in it. He tells his story with a measured, low-key pace (opposed to the sometimes strident melodrama that dominates much of his other work), and we watch as Wesley realizes that the harried janitor he keeps bumping into is desperately in need of his kindness. He gives it, not expecting anything in return. He does the right thing because it's the right thing to do.
And then things get complicated.
Wesley begins to fall in love with Lindsey. And she opens his heart to things he's never experienced before—things we're meant to believe he will never experience again if he sticks to his preordained script with fiancée Natalie.
So we're invited to root for Wesley and Lindsey to overcome their obstacles and get together, never mind that he has to scrap a relationship with someone he's living with in the process.
"I love you," Wesley tells Natalie as they're breaking up.
"I love you too," Natalie responds.
"But it's not enough, is it?"
The answer to why it's not enough is multilayered. It's not enough because they've become bored with each other. It's not enough because Wesley has realized he's not entirely happy with his heretofore orderly life. It's not enough because he's fallen for another woman.
So we watch Wesley try to deal with all of those issues by jetting off to Africa with Lindsey and her daughter. It's a Disney-esque, happily ever after ending that powerfully reinforces one of Hollywood's favorite messages: Follow your heart. Or, as we're told here, "You don't have to apologize for doing what you feel."
That plays well on big screens where principal characters can ride off into the sunset with only a dream and one big life-altering decision to propel them. But even then it only works if you stubbornly refuse to probe a bit beneath the surface. Consider: What if Wesley and Lindsey decide a year later that love isn't enough for them? Do they again follow their hearts?
Or, on a more dire note, what happens if Lindsey discovers a month later that she's fallen in with a man who won't stay with her? Won't continue to care for her daughter? She barely knows him, after all.
At some point, the counsel to follow your heart, heed your emotions and indulge your feelings can become not only sneakily self-serving but baldly shortsighted. It's an in-the-moment-only proposition, caring not a whit for what happens next. And it's so dicey because it's so dependent upon what, exactly, your heart is actually following.
To the extent that our feelings are aligned with truth and goodness—and Wesley's, to his credit, are in some very significant ways in this story—the outcome(s) may be good. But when our feelings are tuned in to the wrong things, the results can be devastating. And sometimes we can't tell the difference until it's too late. Think of it this way: Walter is following his heart every bit as much as Wesley learns to follow his. And it's done nothing but lead him into bitterness, rage and alcoholism.
As with many of Perry's more serious offerings, Good Deeds invites—practically begs for—exactly this kind of reflection and conversation. And in some ways, it is his most satisfying (and subtle) effort to date. But it won't give you the right answers on a silver platter engraved with the Deeds' good name. If we leave it as it is, we're left with little more than a feelings-based romanticization that can easily inspire us to try our own hand at making hasty Hollywood-style decisions in the real world—a place where they more often than not fall flatter than a misguided Madea joke.