Some filmmakers go out of their way to try something new and different each time they start work on a new project, while others are content to give their audiences just what they expect on a regular basis. Tyler Perry certainly falls into the latter category; 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, directed by Darren Grant, was the first of Perry’s many successful...read more
Some filmmakers go out of their way to try something new and different each time they start work on a new project, while others are content to give their audiences just what they expect on a regular basis. Tyler Perry certainly falls into the latter category; 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, directed by Darren Grant, was the first of Perry’s many successful stage plays to come to the big screen, and after it became a surprise box-office smash, Perry took over as director for the follow-up, 2006’s Madea’s Family Reunion. Since then Perry has brought another one of his plays to the screen at least once a year, delivering his trademark mixture of broad comedy, family drama, and testimony of faith. He changed up his formula with 2010’s For Colored Girls, an adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s celebrated verse drama For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, but Perry returns to form with Madea’s Big Happy Family, in which he’s back as his best-known character, sharp-tongued and outsized grandmother Madea Simmons. While the story is built around family secrets and surprise announcements, anyone who is familiar with Perry’s previous work will have a clear (and probably accurate) idea of exactly where this movie is headed within the first 15 minutes.
Madea’s Big Happy Family opens in the hospital, where Shirley (Loretta Devine) is getting some bad news from her doctor. Although she’s been in treatment for cancer for several years, the disease has returned with a vengeance, and now she has only a few months to live. Shirley simply wants to gather her three grown children together to tell them the news face to face, yet that proves to be a difficult task. Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) is married to Harold (Rodney Perry), and she verbally browbeats her husband while ignoring their two arrogant sons. Kimberly (Shannon Kane) is a successful real estate agent who makes no secret of her contempt for her husband, Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa), despite his best efforts to look after her and their young son. And Byron (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss) is 18 years old and has already done time for drug dealing; he’s trying to hold down a straight job, but the loud-mouthed mother of his baby son, Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), and his cash-hungry new girlfriend, Renee (Lauren London), both want him to go back into the dope game to make a quick buck. Between their own problems, their issues with one another, and their frequent disrespect toward their mother, just getting the family together over dinner proves all but impossible, so Shirley’s aunt Madea steps in to help, along with feisty but reefer-addled Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), scatter-brained and fashioned-challenged Brown (David Mann), and his exasperated daughter, Cora (Tamela J. Mann).
Madea’s Big Happy Family plays like a cross between a stage drama and a TV situation comedy, which isn’t at all unexpected -- after all, it was based on one of Tyler Perry’s plays and features several characters borrowed from Perry’s sitcoms House of Payne and Meet the Browns. Like a stage play, it’s dominated by long speeches that play to the last row of the balcony, with dialogue taking the place of action, and like a sitcom many of the characters seem to be there just to utter their catchphrases or do the business they’re famous for, and the narrative often comes to a dead stop while someone shows off their funny accent, their funny stage moves, or delivers a speech on the value of family and the importance of Christian faith. And again, like a TV show this assumes you’re caught up on the backstories of the characters and are entertained simply by having characters like Brown, Cora, and Aunt Bam show up and unfurl their eccentricities, since they have nothing to do with the plot, as it’s Shirley and her kids who really drive the story. Although Perry clearly respects his actors and gives them plenty of room, he also seems to encourage them to overplay, and between the keyed-up performances and the big speeches in which the characters either shoot for laughs or bare their souls, this movie is about as nuanced as a nine-pound hammer aimed at your forehead. (Perry’s leaden visual style, which makes Kevin Smith look like the Coen Brothers, only adds to the turgid theatricality of this movie.) It’s clear that Tyler Perry knows what his audience wants, and he’s eager to give it to them; there’s no arguing his work fills a real need -- few people on television and practically no one else in the movies is telling stories about and for working-class African-Americans, especially given the respect he clearly shows for their lives and concerns, despite the buffoonish nature of his comedy. But there’s a fine line between fulfilling expectations and creatively treading water, and Madea’s Big Happy Family doesn’t deliver much that Perry hasn’t put onscreen before, suggesting he hasn’t worked out the difference between being consistently entertaining and repeating yourself.
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