Sunday, February 26, 2006

Madea's Family Reunion

MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION (Tyler Perry, 2006)

Lord have mercy, it’s another heavy-handed homily from Tyler Perry. The screenwriter and star of DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN adds director to his list of credits for MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION, the follow-up to the commercially successful and critically reviled adaptation of Perry’s play. In MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION Perry plays three roles, the most prominent of which is the no-nonsense big momma Madea. She doles out her down-home wisdom in heaping helpings to her nieces, half-sisters Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), and a court-imposed foster child.

Lisa is engaged to Atlanta investment banker Carlos (Blair Underwood), a man of her mother’s dreams more than hers. In public Carlos looks like the perfect man, but in his penthouse he is controlling and physically abusive. Not only does Lisa’s mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield) have no sympathy for her favored daughter’s plight, but she views it as an acceptable compromise for achieving financial security. Vanessa, the single mother of two children by different men, lives with Madea while trying to get her life in order. She fears committing to another man even when her pursuer is the exceptionally nice bus driver Frankie (Boris Kodjoe).

If Tyler Perry worked in construction, he’d use a sledgehammer when a tack hammer would get the job done. At least that’s the impression given by his didactic film. MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION pounds out the conflicts and resolutions as if the audience were kindergarteners who need to have everything spelled out in the most simplistic way possible. Perry encourages viewers to interact with the film, shamelessly trolling for tuts and applause at the properly coded moments.

Most of the characters are monsters or long-suffering saints. It’s not enough for Victoria to have selfish reasons to encourage Lisa to stay in a bad relationship. She also has to have no remorse for letting her wealthy husband rape Vanessa as a child so he wouldn’t leave her. The revelation appalls the audience—rightly so—but it doesn’t faze the characters beyond the scene in which it occurs. It plays into Perry’s strategy of letting the viewers feel superior to the bad people and those who put up with them.

Like DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN, for a movie that is supposedly rooted in Christian ideals, Perry’s work has a taste for Old Testament vengeance. It’s another indication that he is pandering to a judgmental audience dissatisfied with the state of today’s African-American community, yet Perry undercuts himself at times, juxtaposing the pleasure of ogling a young woman with a call for females to dress less provocatively. There’s nothing objectionable about the film’s desire to promote healing and right living, but MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION is oppressively earnest. Despite the broad comedy of the infrequent scenes with Madea and her brother Joe—both played by Perry—it’s also humorless.

Perry has yet to demonstrate an understanding for the difference between a stage production and a film. Crudely assembled on a basic level, MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION jerks from one soap opera subplot to another, often spending long stretches away from the main thread regarding Lisa and Carlos. From the outset Perry shows a failure to grasp film grammar. Carlos ushers Lisa into the bathroom where he has drawn a bath for her comfort. Also in the room are some instrumentalists, one playing a harp, and a woman waving a fan. Ordinarily I’d assume this is a fantasy sequence, but if that was his intention, Perry gives no indication that such is the case. (Maybe it’s supposed to be believable. An opulent wedding features children dressed as angels hanging from the ceiling.)

The actors do the best they can. Aytes is appealing as Lisa even though her character’s submissiveness frustrates because it exceeds common sense. Anderson gets the best and most complex role as Vanessa. She does well conveying how Vanessa’s relationship history builds her resistance to Frankie’s inherent goodness. The screenplay doesn’t do her any favors when she’s called upon to act needlessly hysterical after Frankie takes the kids out while she sleeps, but as with all the performances, Perry’s writing is to blame. Perry is more successful as an actor than a writer and director. He hoards the rare funny lines for himself as Madea and Joe, and in those scenes his preference for the broad are less maddening. For his future films Perry would be wise to tone down the melodrama and increase the comedy. He needs more than a spoonful of sugar to make his medicine go down.

Grade: D-

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