In some ways, Tyler Perry movies take place in their own specific world that merges stereotypes, romance-novel melodrama, and upwardly-mobile fantasies. But when his zany cast of characters (many but not all played by Perry himself) takes leave of his material, as in Nobody’s Fool, his movie’s faults start to look more congruent with less auteur-driven studio comedies. Some of the lighting has aggressive boardroom flatness. The characters speak in exposition and rambling wisecracks. The actors have leeway to mug and improvise.
Lacking Perry in front of the camera, Nobody’s Fool even substitutes a lead with her own distinctive comic voice: Tiffany Haddish, playing such an enthusiastic second banana that the movie cedes her a lot of screen time (and first billing) in the early going. The story is actually about Danica (Tika Sumpter), a well-to-do woman with a good career who is bouncing back from heartbreak through an online relationship that has yet to make the jump to IRL. This doesn’t sit right with Danica’s coworker and best friend, Callie (Amber Riley), and it really doesn’t sit right with Danica’s sister, Tanya (Haddish), who is released from a five-year prison sentence early in the film and crashes at Danica’s swanky pad (where, Tanya notes, no one turns off the hot water after a certain hour). Their mom (Whoopi Goldberg) insists on this arrangement, casually explaining that last time Tanya stayed at her place, she made out with all of the house’s copper wire. (This is indicative of Perry’s best jokes: Crazy exaggeration delivered offhandedly.)
Tanya’s re-entry into society puts Danica’s boyfriend mystery on pause for a bit, supposedly to offer a comedy of contrasts between the uptight yuppie and her rougher-hewn sister. The movie does play this game to an extent, but one of its best qualities is its refusal to make Danica especially frustrated or embarrassed by Tanya. Whether it’s Perry’s ear for the nuances of close-but-fraught sibling relationships or a simple byproduct of Sumpter appearing to be on the verge on cracking up at Haddish’s performance in many scenes, it generates real warmth, even as Haddish plays her most caricatured big role to date.
Soon Tanya is working at a coffee shop run by Frank (Omari Hardwick), who is obviously smitten with Danica. But Danica only has eyes for her (unseen) internet beau, at least until Tanya calls up the hosts of the MTV show Catfish to investigate this man’s shady inability to ever video-chat. Here, Perry’s bizarre sensibilities again intertwine with the mainstream. Having the real Nev and Max from Catfish appear for an extended cameo feels like something that could happen in any given New Line Cinema comedy, while turning a solid 10 minutes of the movie into a made-up (and kind of uneventful) episode of Catfish feels like something that could only happen in Perry World.
It’s around this point—the point where Danica hits on both Catfish hosts in quick succession—that this scattershot movie’s energy starts to flag. Nobody’s Fool takes longer than expected to execute one of Perry’s wild tonal shifts, here from raucous R-rated comedy to limp yet sex-heavy romantic drama. But once it gets there, it slows to an aimless crawl, inching along until it can spring a nonsensical twist that keeps the movie running for an extra 20 minutes or so. It’s hard (or at least pointless) to fault Perry for one of his signature moves at this point, but the monotony of romantic conflict scenes alternating with Danica and Callie’s debriefing scenes saps the movie’s already-erratic comic energy. It also spotlights the obligatory shaming of its female lead for her apparently terrible capriciousness; Frank spends a lot of the back half movie in a passive-aggressive sulk about her not liking him as much as she should.
It’s too bad, because Hardwick and especially Sumpter have some charming moments; the cinematography even gets warmer when they’re together. Sumpter’s most exuberant scenes bookend the movie: an opening scene where she dances across her apartment as texts between her and her catfish pop back and forth on the screen, and a climactic moment that has some fun with the old pleading-in-the-rain routine. She and Haddish make a likable pair, but Perry never quite works them into a functioning comedy team. They share the screen, but they wind up standing in separate zones of Perry World: the wild comic caricatures and the soft-core yet severe romances, more at odds than ever.