Of course, as with any idea, its fate lies in its execution. The acting, luckily, is good, at times so good that you want to believe the movie can escape its trappings. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious realistically and with intelligence, which is impressive, because I’d wager many actresses wouldn’t think to give her the quiet dignity she has. Paula Patton has the standard inspirational teacher bit, and she fills the role well, at least as well as you’d expect. Mariah Carey is oddly absent for most of the movie (when, near the end, she says that she and Precious have been talking in her office for a year, my first thought was, “Really?”), but she’s surprisingly strong, even if it’s a throwaway role.
Mo’Nique, though, is the highlight. I can’t say that I’ve seen her in much, but she usually sticks to the kinds of comedies that make you weep for the comedy genre. Here, she does a complete 180, creating a terrifying woman in whose petty worldview her child is a rival, and her grandchildren parting shots from the man who left her. She’s capable of horrific acts of physical and emotional abuse; you never know what lines she’s willing to cross. Mo’Nique’s performance also gets to the heart of why the movie doesn’t work, even if it's through no fault of her own.
Her big emotional scene serves as the film’s climax. It’s the one scene where the curtain is pulled away and we see Mary as a real, deeply hurt human being, and Mo’Nique is selling it. Really selling it. Lee Daniels, though, seems almost purposely ignorant of it. Timed perfectly for maximum melodrama, the camera zooms in on Mo’Nique’s upturned palms, grasping at the sky. It shakes not with visceral emotion, but with phony TV style, randomly pushing in on the actors’ faces at the worst times. There are your strings.