While he's not a fan of family get-togethers, Judge Bill Gibron found this uneven entertainment from Gospel play superstar Tyler Perry to be a fun, if flawed, experience.
Come as you are. Leave different.
The unexpected success of Tyler Perry was destined to cause a great deal of distress in Hollywood. After all, his triumphant take on the urban comedy, 2004's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, became an unqualified smash dealing in subjects that Tinseltown tends to avoid. Heavily steeped in African-American cultural dynamics (unapproachable issue #1) and frequently focusing on the role religion plays in daily life (unapproachable issue #2), the narrative touched on forgiveness (unapproachable issue #3), inner conviction (unapproachable issue #4), and personal responsibility (unapproachable issue #5). By doing so, it catered to an audience usually put off by the standard cinematic offering, a demographic devoted to church, family, and ethics. Many dismissed the film, finding it trite, melodramatic, and pat. It was a similar reaction that greeted 2006's pseudo-sequel Madea's Family Reunion. In fact, the criticism was even more strident. Many pointed to Perry, arguing that Reunion was Diary redux, and that after just two feature films, Perry the moviemaker was already repeating himself and running out of ideas. Yet anyone who knows his canon of crafty "Chitlin' Circuit" shows realizes he's barely breached the substantive surface. While this movie version of his successful stage play does have a major internal flaw, Family Reunion argues for Perry as a stellar entertainer and—dare it be said—a rising African-American auteur.
Facts of the Case
Lisa (Rochelle Aytes, White Chicks) and Carlos (Blair Underwood, Asunder) are about to get married, but there's a secret simmering behind their perfect-couple persona. Jealousy and uncontrollable rage leads Carlos to beat his bride-to-be and, instead of lashing out or seeking help, Lisa simply takes it. This comes as a surprise to her sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Disappearing Acts) and her domineering mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield, The Josephine Baker Story). Vanessa wants her to fight, but she herself is locked in a confusing relationship with a sweet, sincere bus driver named Frankie (Boris Kodjoe, Soul Food) who appears "too perfect" to trust. Mom tells Lisa to simply accept her fate, since there's a substantial fiscal reward in marrying this rich, if morally repugnant, man. As the ceremony looms, tensions between the trio amplify. Eventually, Vanessa's self-righteous relative, Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Tyler Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) must get involved. Already burdened with caring for her semi-senile brother Joe (Perry) and a brand-new foster child, Nikki (Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee), Madea still makes time for her troubled brood; it's her purpose in life. With Madea's Family Reunion coming on top of the impending nuptials, this loudmouthed matron has her work cut out for her.
Let's begin this review with a stern, substantive caveat. You have to forget everything you know (if you know anything, that is) about Tyler Perry's Gospel-tinged stage plays before going into Madea's Family Reunion. If you are a fan of these powerful preaching/teaching talent showcases loaded with amazing music, anarchic comedy, and touching tests of family and faith, you may be a tad disappointed in how these entertaining tent shows come across on the silver screen. It is obvious that, as a playwright, Perry knows how to keep a live audience happy. He uses a catty kitchen-sink approach to every production he puts on, mixing the scandalous and the sacred to forge a diverse level of enjoyment and involvement. Perry doesn't just want to grab you—he wants to hold on to your heart and mess with your head until you hear him out. Such an approach is almost antithetical to the ways movies are made today and in order to play the Tinseltown game, Perry the filmmaker must face Perry the playwright and come to some kind of comic compromise. Thus we have the strange sort of storyline symbiosis that occurs as part of Family Reunion's reality. We get parts from past shows (Class Reunion and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, to be exact) as well as lines lifted directly from Perry's recent Madea manifest, Madea Goes to Jail. In fact, the whole foster-kid concept is a main element of that scattered storyline.
The main narrative thread—Lisa's upcoming wedding to the rich but abusive Carlos—is still intact and the whole undercurrent of familial dysfunction and secret shames suppressed is still part of the picture, but stage favorites The Browns are once again absent, the funeral that sets off the original reunion has been nixed, and instead of focusing on Madea's close family, the final act sprawls across a generational canvas to draw in individuals we've never ever met before in a Perry production. Represented in a completely gratuitous manner by Cicely Tyson and Dr. Maya Angelou, these venerated figures are positioned as the Ultimate Madeas, so to speak, older and far more world-wise than Perry's vaudeville version of the African-American woman. In truth, Madea's Family Reunion is a big, unbridled mess, a pleasant enough experience that tries to do too much, only to use the generosity of its cast and the geniality of its creator to get us over the rough, routine parts. The result is a movie that gets better with multiple viewings, a film that finds its voice in several minor moments throughout an otherwise expansive and overbroad sense of plot purpose. Yet even then, it robs us of the reason we come to a Perry production. In fact, the biggest flaw in the big-screen revamp is the decision to move Madea off-center and into a decidedly supporting role.
Perry can't play more than one character on stage, so he makes his gun-wielding wild woman part of a trilogy of simple archetypes that stand as signposts of his ideas. Madea is, of course, the voice of ridiculous reason, the "hands-on" matron who beats butt first and asks questions never. Joe, the flatulent old man who becomes the film's primary laugh-getter, is (as Perry puts it) his down-and-dirty side. Joe is indeed able to say things that characters in other Perry plays would never be caught contemplating. He discusses his ass gas, stares slack-jawed at barely-dressed girls, and ridicules Madea every chance he gets. Perry must perceive Joe as a Hollywood device, something he can use to match the wicked Wayans brothers or the mediocre Martin Lawrence. Still, it's interesting to note that Madea handles most of this scandalous material onstage, dropping topical references and semi-scatological slams at the drop of a hat. Why Joe is now employed in this dynamic is odd, especially when you consider Madea is the character that made Perry who he is today. As for the final Tyler interpretation, the regular black brother Brian, there is not much to say. Perry is perfectly fine as a normal human being, face lacking latex and voice normalized from its typical high pitched/low growl groaning. Still, the lack of Madea makes Family Reunion a tougher time than it needs to be. Her humor always makes the tough stuff that much easier to swallow.
Let's begin with the spousal abuse storyline. It's important to note that Perry doesn't shy away from the issue. He has Blair Underwood in full blown punch throwing mode. The beatings are so shocking—if only because our purely PC culture never wants to actually show what it doesn't condone—that they make for a mighty narrative mountain to climb. Every time Underwood raises his fist, we wonder aloud about the lack of police interference, restraining orders, family member vigilantism, and the various "cycle of violence"' awareness campaigns. Apparently, Madea and her family live in the closed-off part of Atlanta, where shows like Jenny Jones, Maury Povich, and Jerry Springer never see the light of a programming day. Also, the reasons behind the riff between Vanessa and her highfaluting mother (not discussed here in order to prevent spoilers) are understandable, but underdeveloped. Typical for a 90-minute movie, the issue is brought out to the fore, briefly addressed with a few melodramatic monologues, and then all is supposedly right with the parent/child dynamic. In fact, the background is so horrifying, so borderline unbelievable, that we find both Vanessa's forgiveness and her mother's defensive stand like the acts of emotional extraterrestrials. Maybe we're just so used to seeing these sorts of things battled out on tabloid TV that to hear it dealt with quasi-rationally is somewhat deceiving.
While the foster-child subplot is handled well and the bus-driver romance for our still-smarting Vanessa has its realistic ups and downs, Madea's Family Reunion still feels like a religious pamphlet come to life. Perry never shies away from faith and belief, yet his films seem strangled in the sacrosanct department. Perhaps it's the lack of big, brash Gospel hoedowns divvying up the drama. In a Perry play, the show will suddenly stop so that an incredibly gifted singer can sanctify God and Jesus, belting out a song like Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls. Here, the music is handled in a more traditional cinematic manner. As scenes change and montages move the narrative, the Perry-penned tunes act like sacred sonic accents. However, because they aren't sequences unto themselves, they lose much of their power.
With uniformly excellent acting all around (particular kudos go to Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Boris Kodjoe, and Rochelle Aytes) and a decent missive about empowerment and forgiveness at its foundation, Madea's Family Reunion is a warm and inviting entertainment. Perry is still probing as a director, trying things and experimenting with elements both good (his casting) and bad (the incredibly tacky wedding finale), yet there are clear signs of a growing maturity and mastery behind the lens. As occasionally weak works in progress, both Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion may end up being minor works in Tyler Perry's overall oeuvre. However, for right now, they stand as a starting point to his kind of creative comedic evangelism. Argue with their proficiency and professionalism, but Tyler Perry knows how to entertain folks. Here's hoping he works the bugs out of his big-screen ventures. His is a voice that deserves to be heard.
On the technical side of things, Lionsgate delivers a delightful DVD presentation. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is beautiful—clean and crisp with gorgeous color correction and a rich depth of detail. Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs have never looked better than in this engaging, atmospheric transfer. The sound is equally good, though there is no real difference between the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. In fact, when music isn't involved, both aural offerings deliver decipherable dialogue and superb spatial ambiance. As for extras, Perry is present for a wonderfully self-effacing commentary track. More than happy to point out places where he failed, as well as moments he finds just right, this alternate narrative is a thoroughly entertaining overview of the Family Reunion process. Perry does 'fess up, admitting that, in his mind, this is Joe's, not Madea's, movie and argues for additions/subtractions from the original story. He also loves Atlanta and shamelessly lauds the movie's many aerial shots of the city. As a matter of fact, the commentary can easily be called a love letter to the filmmaking process. As he does on his stage play DVDs, Perry loves to discuss the creative process. The added feature here is no different.
Similarly, we have the option of viewing several astute documentaries on the making of the movie. Focusing on the film itself (a standard EPK backstage glimpse), how the music was created, the history of the Gaither Plantation (where the family reunion was shot), and how the "heavenly" wedding was realized, these engaging overviews help us understand this director's motives. Dressed as Madea, Perry is here as a presenter and narrator. Often hilarious, these bits show the true Madea, not the one "toned down" for mainstream release. In addition, we have access to a few deleted scenes which, without their accompanying subplot context, really add very little to the overall film. One confrontation between father and son has a nice resonance to it, but again, we are unsure of the situation and therefore can't respond with the necessary emotional connection. Add in a set of trailers and you've got a decent, dense digital package, one arguing for Lionsgate's love of this multi-faceted artist and his works.
The hatred that comes Tyler Perry's way whenever he makes a media move is quite unsettling. When his films are popular, the gullibility of his audience is questioned. When his stage plays are unqualified hits, it's the demographic that's the determining factor. Some curse his Christian calling while others argue that he's nothing more than a cleaned-up urban comic, using God and The Bible as blinds for his otherwise standard race-based humor. The truth is that, at his core, Perry is probably guilty of everything he's accused of. He is also the beneficiary of a showman's shrewdness that, when applied to his burgeoning business acumen, makes him a creative force to be reckoned with. Doubters may as well erase said suspicions from their belief and haters need to find a proper vehicle to vent at. Tyler Perry may not be everyone's evangelical cup of tea and his flawed fairy tales may be loaded with types both stereo and arche, but he has his finger on the pulse of a part of the entertainment audience that has felt underserved by the current cultural marketplace. As long as his audience needs something to make them laugh, cry, and think, Perry will be around to supply the screen or stage play. Madea's Family Reunion can't match the original theatrical version in laughs or liveliness, but as another step in the eventual rise of Tyler Perry, it's an indelible, if incomplete, diversion.
Not guilty. Madea's Family Reunion is flawed, but still manages to be an engaging, emotional movie. As a filmmaker, Tyler Perry is released on his own recognizance, pending a review of future endeavors. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Tyler Perry
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