REVIEW: Madea Ready for Retirement in Madea's Big Happy Family
Writing about certain of Tyler Perry's movies feels more like filing a witness report. Behind the veil of tears and near-pornographic melodrama, For Colored Girls offered a glimpse of where the mogul's creative future might lead. There was much to be said. To watch Madea's Big Happy Family is to be disarmed on several fronts. I was there, I saw what happened, and I am aware of the career-founding success of the franchise, but beyond that everything goes kind of blank.
I could tell you about the plot, I guess. But plots are barely concealed pretense in this kind of storytelling -- it's about familiar beats being hit, the satisfactions of a well-known character moving through a pop-up showcase for their schtick. In this regard, Big Happy Family feels awfully thin. Perry has said he is itching to watch his fatsuit pulled up to the rafters, and retire the shit-talking, violence-prone grandmother he has played for the past decade. For a potential swan song, this Madea is relegated mostly to the wings.
Instead the focus is on her niece, Shirley (Loretta Devine), who is diagnosed with terminal cancer in the first scene. Her doctor is a blue-eyed fox, which means Shirley's pal Bam (Cassi Davis) unleashes the oversexed old lady routine (though I preferred that to the prostate exam humor that followed, complete with the exaggerated latex snap). Bam is a hopeless pothead, a conceit used for bleakly imaginative punch lines when it's not providing a contradiction to the drug-selling woes of Shirley's son Byron (Shad "Bow Wow" Moss). Shirley's other two children form the axis of female evil along which the film's moral center slides. Tammy (Natalie Desselle) is in this hectoring fishwife mold; Kimberly (Shannon Kane) is the sleek dragon woman. Both not only refuse to touch their husbands (Rodney Perry and Isaiah Mustafa, respectively) but actively abuse them, to an extreme presumably meant to build velocity into their comeuppance.
But Lord, it's long in coming. Shirley's attempts to gather her family to tell them she's a few weeks from death result in family chaos so protracted she can't get the words out. Byron's new girlfriend (Lauren London) is a golddigger; his baby mama is an even more horrifying caricature of a ghetto gum-snapper (Teyana Taylor). Both crash every gathering, imposters who nevertheless fit right in. The men are long-suffering, wondering how to placate their miserably mean women as they suck up their abuse. ("What is wrong with women in general?" one asks. "They're trapped in a Tyler Perry film," I reply.) Off on the sidelines is Madea, whom Bam recruits to try and gather the unruly family for the final, climactic dinner.
As an insult comic, Madea has gone the way of her low-hanging bosom. There's little pleasure in watching her go off, and Perry's direction is reliably drab: Sitcom setups dominate, with strange blown-out lighting occasionally swapped in for the flat tones of a WB soundstage. Even watching her drop the hammer on each of Shirley's children (and appalling grandchildren) feels half-hearted. Madea favors the back of the hand when her admonishments fail, which makes for some pretty dull -- and mildly disturbing -- payoffs. Her moral universe is as disorienting: She drops "prescripture," perhaps facetiously, but avoids Church, and seems above all to follow the path of full disclosure, if only where others are concerned. Maury Povich's DNA circuses feature in the background of an early scene, then seem to invade the film itself. Soap-opera secrets are dropped in a blink, which is all they've earned, and after a tear-yanking finale, several characters end up on the Povich show themselves. Perry is right to yearn to put Madea to bed, even on this bizarrely anticlimactic note: That broad is tired.