The holy spirit is willing in Tyler Perry's new film, Madea's Family Reunion. It's the comedy that's weak and downright unsuitable for the drama Perry strenuously designs. It's nothing that a few faith-based homilies can't correct for the characters, but it has more personal issues than any film, pious or secular, can smoothly overcome with jokes.
Perry knows his audience, mostly religious African-American women, and plays to them at every turn. The only crossover effect interesting to him is crossing over to the promised land. His sanctity and business savvy run deep. Perry realizes that movies sold entirely on salvation won't have legs - see last year's The Gospel and Woman, Thou Art Loosed before that - so he spices things with Big Momma's House buffoonery and Waiting to Exhale soapiness.
It is a difficult blend, each formula occasionally diluting the other, like someone breaking wind at church or a marriage counselor's office. Viewers are urged to laugh, cry, jeer and say amen, sometimes all in the same scene. That those reactions contradict more than compliment each other won't matter to his faithful fans.
Madea's Family Reunion is a sequel of sorts to last year's sleeper, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The linkage is Perry's cross-dressing portrayal of no-nonsense Mabel "Madea" Simmons, who will threaten a drive-by shooting if necessary to be heard. The only thing less credible than Madea's brand of family leadership is the shortage of makeup giving Perry a convincingly aged appearance. He's no Mrs. Doubtfire.
Perry piles on plenty of reasons for relatives to require Madea's firm hand. Her niece Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) is engaged to an abuser named Carlos (Blair Underwood). Another niece, Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), is a single mother dodging the affections of a good man (Boris Kodjoe). Their mother, Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), is a major reason why neither woman can find happiness. She needs a good Bible thumping. Madea wrote the book on that.
There's also a delinquent girl (Keke Palmer) assigned by a judge to Madea's care. A few whippings teach her self-esteem, exemplifying a problem carried over from Perry's first movie: He occasionally sends mixed messages because they suit his immediate purposes. Carlos' actions are sinful, but dumping a pot of hot grits on him isn't much different, nor is threatening children. Soon after a scene of child sexual abuse revelations, the leering of Uncle Joe (also Perry) at an underage relative is meant to amuse.
Perry eventually finds an inarguable focus, signaled by the late arrival of Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou as Simmons family matriarchs. Tyson's sermon to the clan about their overcome past and sinful present is a remarkable scene, and Angelou's poetry reading says more about the value of love than anything else in Perry's film. Who needs Madea's antics and dubious tough love when serious themes and performers like these are around? Only a studio needing enough silliness to shape a preview trailer selling a lesser movie than Perry made.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org
TYLER PERRY'S MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION
DIRECTOR: Tyler Perry
CAST: Tyler Perry, Lynn Whitfield, Keke Palmer, Rochelle Aytes, Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Blair Underwood, Cicely Tyson, Boris Kodjoe
SCREENPLAY: Tyler Perry, based on his stage play
RATING: PG-13; mature themes including domestic violence and child sexual abuse, crude humor, brief profanity, a drug reference.
RUNNING TIME: 107 min.