As I pondered my options at the theater this past weekend, I was sorely tempted to escape writing a review by jumping off the suspension bridge. You see I don’t like films filled with constant car chases, races, and explosions, and neither do I care for movies about loud, obnoxious characters screaming at each other. And yet I found myself forced to choose between “Furious Five,” starring that acting giant Vin Diesel in the role of Dominic Toretto for the fourth time, or “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” in which Tyler Perry dons the wig, lipstick, glasses, and house dress for his sixth portrayal of the irrepressible Mabel “Madea” Simmons.
I actually wasted four hours over the weekend watching both of these movie masterpieces, but I finally decided to write about Perry’s latest foray into Madea’s madcap world. Now if you are wondering how I decided in favor of one film over the other, I can honestly reveal that I have absolutely no idea. That being said, let’s get on with it.
“Madea’s Big Happy Family” begins on somber note when her niece Shirley (Loretta Devine) receives some very bad news about her medical condition. In fact, the diagnosis is so disturbing that Shirley decides to summon her three grown children and their families to have dinner with her perhaps for the last time. But unlike their mother, who is a quiet, kind, and devout person, Shirley’s children are self-centered, selfish people who have made complete messes of their lives.
Shirley’s youngest child is Byron (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss), and he has recently been released from prison after serving two years for dealing drugs. Now he has had a child with a loud-mouthed woman (Teyana Taylor) who is constantly after him for money, and he also has a girlfriend (Lauren London) with very expensive tastes. Byron’s two sisters are Kimberly (Shannon Kane) and Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid). The former is a haughty realtor who treats her husband like dirt, and the latter has two unruly children and is facing the possibility of a marital breakup.
Getting all these egotistical and belligerent people to sit down for a dinner with their mother is a seemingly impossible task, but there is only one person equal to it – Madea. But the dinner doesn’t turn out quite the way Shirley had hoped it would. It quickly evolves into a verbal slugfest, and before it’s over, some skeletons come tumbling out of long-locked closets.
As he does in all his films, Perry combines both intense family drama with comedy, and it works in this film because of the touching performance turned in by Devine. Only someone completely devoid of a heart could not find Shirley a lovely and sympathetic character. She has been fighting her illness for seven years, and yet she never complains and is grateful for every day she has left on earth. She even consoles the doctor when he delivers the bad news about her prognosis, and she provides a sharp contrast to what her children have become despite the love and care she has lavished on them. Shirley definitely is the heart and soul of the film.
Since the release of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005, Perry has become on of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. In fact, “Madea’s Big Happy Family” is his 11th movie in the last six years, and business has been so good that he even has built his own studio in Atlanta, where he lives. People either seem to love or hate his films, but in the production notes, Perry offered a possible reason of their popularity.
“Comedy is all around me. Even in some of the most serious situations, even in some of my greatest sadness, I find something to be joyful about. That’s why my films are the way they are. The audience wants to laugh. They want to have a little drama or melodrama. So I just love going all the way in both directions. And with Madea I can do that.”
This film is special for Perry, however, because he wrote the play upon which it is based to honor the death of his mother.
“I wrote the play that the movie is based on as an homage to my mother who had passed away. Now I’m just really excited about having an opportunity to use this movie as my instrument to get through my own grief. Writing this story has helped me a great deal. And to be able to use something so tragic for me and pass it on to someone else and make them laugh, I have joy. It’s a good feeling.”
The character of Madea has more time on the screen in this film than in Perry’s previous movies, and he explained in the production notes that this was what audiences demanded.
“All the make-up and the costumes while I’m directing are a lot. But audiences wanted more, so I sucked it up and gave it to them. I do love watching it back later on. I love to see what happens after it’s over. Madea’s energy is contagious. She’s not politically correct. Don’t ask her if you don’t want to know the plain, honest truth, because she doesn’t give a damn. I think that’s why people enjoy her so much.”
Of course Madea is the source of most of the comedy in the movie, and although I’m not a big fan of this brand of humor, I must admit that she does something early in the film at a drive-through that I’ve always dreamed of doing. And the tongue-lashing she delivers near the end of the film is classic.
“Madea’s Big Happy Family” (Let’s give it a surprising six.) should certainly satisfy Perry’s loyal fans, but it is awfully loud in places, and sometimes the characters talk so fast you can’t understand them. I’m certainly not a Madea aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ll take her over Big Momma in a heartbeat.