Mad Bad Madea

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Madea’s Family Reunion
Directed by Tyler Perry

Any critic who condescends Tyler Perry hasn’t seen his films with a paying audience. Madea’s Family Reunion, Perry’s follow-up to his smash hit Diary of a Mad Black Woman is the sort of film that invites murmurs of delight or disapproval, gales of laughter and the occasional half-embarrassed sob. This is the kind of movie where the villains behave so atrociously that half the audience bands together to rebuke them. To watch Madea’s with a paying crowd is to understand that popular movie storytelling is alive. Not necessarily alive and well, mind you, but alive.

Perry, an Atlanta-based theater legend who followed his screenwriting/producing/scoring/acting vehicle Diary by adding “director” to his list of credits, is a fumble-fingered theatrical carpetbagger whose imagination is chained to the proscenium arch. A few genuinely cinematic touches appear: sharply-timed violent surprises and an opener in which CGI rose petals tumble over helicopter footage of Atlanta, form into credits, then merge into a trail of real petals that leads to a sleeping woman’s bed. Otherwise, Perry comes across as an amateur who thinks of the camera mainly as a recording machine; a means of preserving his Southern-fried homilies (“It ain’t what people call you, it’s what you answer to”) and his prosthetics-and-slapstick clowning.

Like Diary, Madea features Perry in multiple roles, including flatulent Uncle Joe, strait-laced single dad Brian and Mable “Madea” Simmons, a cranky but warmhearted matriarch who tough-loves her extended family out of jams.

Madea agrees to take in a smart-mouthed, hard-case girl who’s been shunted from one foster home to another. Of course the girl flowers under Madea’s watchful eye and punishing strap. One of Madea’s nieces, Lisa (Rochelle Aytes), is about to wed a rich sociopath (Blair Underwood) who beats her when he isn’t pampering her in bizarre ways (he hires a classical ensemble to score her bubble bath).

Meanwhile, Lisa’s sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) gets wooed by another Perry archetype, the super-hunky, single Christian dad (Boris Kodjoe), but she can’t commit due to emotional damage inflicted by her cold, whorish mother (the great Jenifer Lewis, whose smashingly unsympathetic performance recalls Joan Crawford).

Perry’s directorial inexperience keeps breaking the movie’s spell. Some of his exposition is just plain awful, and he lets the film’s momentum flag by inserting too many prosthetics-dependent improvs. A tearful monologue in the movie’s third act invites derision because the actress’ performance is too big and intense for the tight close-up that encloses it.

In any case, there’s no denying Perry’s ability to seduce the audience into hopping into a stylistic time machine, following him back to the golden age of goofball slapstick and melodramatic “women’s pictures” (the 1930s through the ’50s), then watching as he tries to mix these seemingly incompatible genres. The combo works better than you think. Rookie clumsiness notwithstanding, no American director shifts so fluently between slapstick, melodrama and moral fervor. Plus there’s a depth to Perry’s vision of black life that’s easy to miss when you’re laughing or sniffling.

At this early stage, Perry’s films are more curious than impressive, but they still deserve respect as genre-fusing entertainment, as records of a particular time and place in black America, and as reminders of an era when even the klutziest films connected with life.

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