Lionsgate // 2011 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 7th, 2011
Peace. Love. Harmony. Or else.
"So if you've been redeemed by the Lord, and somebody does something to you that you don't like, even yo kids, you can just beat the hell out of 'em and say, 'So?' So that's what Imma do. Imma beat the hell out of them and say, 'So?' And Imma bring them over here 'cause you've been redeemed, aight? It makes perfect sense, don't it? Halleluyer! Halleluyer!"
Shirley (Loretta Devine, Everybody Hates Chris) has just received some bad news: her cancer has returned, and this time it looks like there's no chance of beating it. Shirley's son Byron (Bow Wow, Like Mike) is working hard to be a good father to his baby boy, but a shrill baby mama (Tenaya Taylor, Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming) and an obnoxious girlfriend (Lauren London, I Love You, Beth Cooper) are making his life extremely difficult. Shirley's daughters Kimberly (Natalie Desselle-Reid, How to be a Player) and Tammy (Shannon Kane, All My Children) are fighting with their husbands and with each other. With the help of the wacky Madea (Tyler Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), this family is going to work through their many issues.
There's nothing I would like more than to write a glowing review of a Tyler Perry film. There were moments of promise in his tonally fractured debut Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and there have been moments of promise in the many projects he's worked on since. Even so, Perry continues churning out the same sort of films with the same sort of problems. It's almost not worth complaining about at this point, as people basically know what they're getting with a Perry flick and know well enough whether or not his style works for them.
Perry's signature tone (incidentally, how many other directors can claim to have such a thing?) is firmly established during the film's opening scene. Shirley and her friend Betty (Cassi Davis, House of Payne) are at the doctor's office. The doctor (a very handsome, muscular man) enters the room. Betty spends the next three minutes or so commenting on how fine the doctor is, rubbing his abs, commenting on the doctor's penis, rubbing her backside against the doctor's crotch, and flailing her arms in ecstasy. Then, the doctor turns gravely serious and tells Shirley that her cancer has returned.
That description may make the film sound like some sort of dark comedy, but no: Perry simply shifts gears from broadly goofy to deadly serious in a heartbeat, and continues to do so throughout the entire film. That's who he is, and that's what he does. You get a supply of extremely low-brow laughs and a generous supply of grim, overheated melodrama. Madea's Big Happy Family seems even more extreme than usual in this regard, as the comic antics are goofier than ever and the drama is a bit darker than usual (rape, cancer, etc.).
Even if you can accept this strange brand of storytelling, you must also accept Perry's distinctive brand of characterization. In this cinematic universe, nearly all the characters fall into one of three categories: impossibly noble heroes, impossibly loathsome villains, and preposterous cartoons. The cartoonish characters tend to fare the best, as we recognize from the beginning that they're not supposed to be realistic. While there may be some truth to the accusations that these characters occasionally tiptoe into minstrel-show stereotypes, one has to acknowledge the raw comic energy of the actors. David Mann puts as much physical energy into his performance as the goofy Mr. Brown as any actor this side of Jim Carrey at his most manic. Intriguingly, Perry's Madea seems a little more subdued this time, despite the fact that her antics (including some bizarre behavior at a restaurant reminiscent of Michael Douglas in Falling Down) are typically over-the-top.
Perhaps the most peculiar, troubling element of Madea's Big Happy Family is Perry's treatment of young woman. While the elderly female characters are treated with warmth, all four of the primary younger female characters (both of Shirley's daughters, Byron's girlfriend, and Byron's baby mama) range between monstrous and satanic. All of these characters are shrill, hateful, one-dimensional human beings who treat the (consistently warm, loving and noble) men in their lives like trash. Such relationships are commonplace in Perry flicks, but for all the younger cast members to be assigned to a gender-specific extreme is an entirely new level of bizarre. Is this some misguided form of therapy for the writer/director?
Madea's Big Happy Family arrives on Blu-ray sporting a solider 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. This is one of the least cinematic Perry films to date, as the flick often has the look of one of the director's television shows. Every now and then Perry will do something to remind us that we're watching a big-screen effort, but the visual style is largely a generic sitcom palette. Detail is decent throughout, though there's some softness (largely intentional) at times and black crush is an issue on occasion. Audio is robust and dynamic, but there are moments when the music and sound design threaten to overwhelm the dialogue (contrast the bold opening credits music to the soft dialogue of the scene which immediately follows). Supplements are light and insubstantial featurettes: "Byreeen: The Baby Mama From Hell" (a featurette spotlighting the most irritating film character of 2011), "Ties That Bind," "Madea's Family Tree" and "Brown Calls Maury." You also get a digital copy.
As usual, Perry delivers some positive messages about forgiveness, reconciliation and family unity. In addition, the film also tackles the issue of obesity in a manner which feels surprisingly natural and unforced.
Perry reportedly wrote Madea's Big Happy Family (which originated as a stage play in 2010 before being turned into a film) as a way of coping with losing his mother to cancer. It does indeed feel more deeply personal than some of his previous efforts (particularly considering that Madea spends much of her screen time making passionate, joke-free speeches), but that unfortunately doesn't translate into a better film. However, those who dig Perry's films in general will undoubtedly enjoy getting another chance to hang out with this film's blend of old and new characters. Good afternoont!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Digital Copy