Lionsgate // 2003 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // September 13th, 2005
Class is in session...and Madea's gonna teach you a lesson.
As a local hotel prepares to host the 50-year class reunion for the students of Booker T. Washington High School, things are not going well for the staff. The young-gun female manager is a stressed-out mess. Besides the guests, she has to worry about her lover, who won't leave his wife and take up with her. In addition, one of the maids is getting up in years, and constantly challenging her boss on all decisions. Her desk clerk, Cora Simmons, is more interested in saving souls than checking in customers, and a new bartender/bellman is just not working out. But the uptight miss ain't seen nothing until Cora's momma, the incomparable Mabel "Madea" Simmons shows up. She, along with that no-good neighbor Mr. Brown, are part of the graduating class, and they're guaranteed to tear up this hotel. Of course, other secrets are discovered and personal problems revealed as the years melt away for the family and members of Madea's Class Reunion.
Continuing to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of the modern black experience in America, Tyler Perry's Madea's Class Reunion is not the religious Animal House parody you think it will be. The title promises a real romp through the urban educational experience with everyone's favorite pot smoking, gun-totting grandma. As he has in almost all his plays, Perry has hit upon a sensational and solid character in his drag-act antics as Mabel "Madea" Simmons. He uses the brash battleaxe as guide through the problems of people of color, no matter the class, no matter the level of opportunity. Using the bumbling Brown family as the stupid but sincere "saved" element of his design, and the sloppy, scattered Simmons clan as the brood unbound, he dips through a veritable whys-why of contemporary ills -- divorce, death, drugs, infidelity, and immorality -- in preparation for his God, family, and faith propaganda.
Some fail to fall into Perry's party line. They see him as a stunted scribe exploiting an underserved niche market -- the inner-city churchgoing public -- for his combination stand-up comedy act and prosetylization. But the truth is that, when he wants to be, Perry can be very funny. He can also be melodramatic, preachy, and so saccharine and sweet that diabetics need extra doses of insulin after attending one of his shows. Madea's Class Reunion is no different. More or less a farce played out in a local hotel, it introduces us to the standard set of archetypes -- the abusive husband, the trifling whore, the self-righteous career girl, the unfaithful spouse, and the clueless other half -- and then lets Perry run interference between them all.
In Class Reunion, Perry actually plays two roles. The first is that of a shiftless bellhop/bartender, and it's here where Perry shows his true talent. Lightning fast on his feet, capable of ad-libbing with amazing comic timing and wit, he never misses an opportunity to pull in the audience. One has to say that the man is obsessed with The Color Purple. A lot of his jokes and asides are pop culture references (especially the hip-hop and urban kind), but you can't help but smile as he mimics Oprah Winfrey's Sofia, or Margaret Avery's Shug. He also knows that the audience will only tolerate so much story without Madea interacting with the narrative, so Willie is unceremoniously dropped about a third of the way through, and our insane instigator arrives to "tear it up."
While it may not be PC to say it, Madea is incredibly entertaining. She may be a broad stereotype that demeans as many people as her character supposedly uplifts, but you cannot deny Perry's ear for rhythms and realism. Perry uses Madea as what her name suggests, a grandiose Greek Chorus. She is the audience; she is the voice of reason and -- occasionally -- irrationality. She is tradition and she is insight. Sometimes, she can be a bit on the evangelical and preachy side. Indeed, there is an entire sequence in a restaurant that feels like nothing more than Perry preaching to the spectators about forgiveness. The play stops dead, the narrative drive derails, and Perry is up on his pedestal, passing down some solid, if rather simplistic, advice about getting control of your life. By the time he is done, he needs to pull out all the stops to get the energy up again.
It is safe to say that Madea's Class Reunion is not as much fun as her Family Reunion. The plot convolutions are fairly obvious (whenever a character walks in who is not part of the usual Perry company, you can guarantee they are a troublemaker or a mistress), and the long-awaited reunion is just some dopey dancing by a couple of cast members. There is a very heavy-handed quality to some of the exposition, as if Perry really is intent on driving his point home, and many of the songs are just extreme vocal workouts. They lack the color and conviction of the other music Perry has composed for his shows. Still, if there is a trick to what makes Tyler Perry and his plays tick, it's this considered and careful balancing of formula, expectations, and message. Madea's Class Reunion may not represent the man, or his usually stellar cast, in the best of all possible lights, but it still shows that the revival as a theatrical experience is alive and well...and touring the nation to sold-out crowds.
As stated before in the review of Madea's Family Reunion, we are dealing with a videotaped play (with a few filmed inserts illustrating and complementing the songs) that makes the big mistake of eliminating almost all the audience interaction in the show. The crowd noises are turned down so low, and the amplified cast are turned up so loud, that you can barely tell the show is being performed in front of people. Also, we see the same post-song fade-outs here, eradicating the applauses and appreciation of the crowd after every number.
In all other ways, however, Lions Gate treats Perry's presentation with care and consideration. Even though this is a taped performance, the 1.33:1 full-frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understood camera angles, framing and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for. Equally important is the translation of the music, and it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soars with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you can't help but feel their musical presence.
As for bonus features, the DVD is outfitted with a Tyler Perry introduction (all of 11 seconds long), a Bloopers and Outtakes featurette (20 minutes of onstage mistakes and general cutting up) and a Selected Scene Commentary track. Perry is passionate and informative when discussing his work, but the sparseness of the content (he only looks at a few select sequences) makes it a real disappointment. The photo gallery is nice, and the trailers clue us in on the other Perry titles waiting to be explored. While it could have been much more (how about a little Q&A with the rest of the cast...), this is a decent digital package. Besides, as Shakespeare said, the play's the thing.
Toward the end of the show, Perry puts in a plot twist meant to set up his next show -- Meet the Browns. The heretofore-undisclosed parentage of Cora seems so silly at first that you hardly believe it to be true. But as you think about it, and the situations you've seen in Madea's Class Reunion, you start to understand Perry's motivation. In essence, he argues that a common thread -- skin tone, social status in White America, spiritual faith, etc., joins all people of color. That is why his work is so popular. He's not leaving anyone out...except those not willing to take his writing at face value. Madea's Class Reunion is no work of art. But as populist amusements go, it is hard to deny.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Tyler Perry Introduction
* Bloopers and Outtakes Featurette
* Selected Scene Commentary with Writer/Director/Star Tyler Perry
* Photo Gallery
* Tyler Perry Official Site
* Madea's Class Reunion Page on the Tyler Perry Official Site