Choking that Ho'
One of the problems I had with Tyler Perry’s previous Madea film (2009’s Madea Goes to Jail) was the character’s obnoxiousness getting in the way of basic humor. Too often, Perry’s lack of sharp repartee showed Madea up to be just plain mean and definitely not erudite. Worse, in isolation, as the only character who brought laughs on screen, she fell well flat by any slapstick standard. She’s back here now but this time Perry seems to have listened to his critics for all of five minutes before unleashing his usual antics. Not that Big Happy Family isn’t as trite as all the previous Madea films (it is) or doesn’t show women in his typical embattled terms (it does) but it at least features some genuine funny moments that make it not as cheesy as its predecessors.
The opening sequence, for example, is raunchy ghetto fun. Shirley (Loretta Devine, in yet another sentimental, sappy role) is getting tests results at the doctor’s office but Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) is busy busting moves for the doctor. The routine is familiar but it’s still funny how she questions him and flutters her eyelids. The doctor plays along but there is grim news to deliver and so Bam exits, taking all the good humor with her. Like, literally, for the rest of the film. Shirley has cancer and unless she undergoes chemo then it’s inoperable. She tries to downplay the diagnosis by trying to gather her family for a last dinner to break the news but is ignored by everyone. Only her doctor seems genuinely concerned while she gives Jesus praises for the life she’s had, ad nauseum. Needless to say, the sessions between the two are stale—he’s genuine but still it’s his job, thus, in the disquiet manner she’s become used to, he really can’t offer much more and she has to appease that reality to make him feel better.
But if Shirley’s reliance on faith guides her through the diagnosis, it clearly hasn’t fared well against the general unruliness of her family. When the first attempt to pass on the bad news fails, she meekly asks Madea to round up the troops instead. This partially indicates that Shirley isn’t as naïve as we think. Like all patients, she dispenses her words and sickness when needed. She is the only intriguing character here but Perry doesn’t know when he has depth or range on his hands. Nor when to cut the sentiment. Her position of matriarch doesn’t offer much beyond her illness. It’s no secret that the character was based on Perry’s own mother who died two years ago but when will he be able to separate sappy characterizing in his films to work through real issues? Issues that are complicated and not stereotypically offensive. I know his many fans out there won’t give a fig that he hasn’t yet learned how to fit progressive storylines into the generic canvass he uses but as he considers himself an auteur, I wonder if he ever will.
Which means we’re still at that stage of his career (if ten years can be seen as fledging) where his films are still self-consciously all about him instead of anything else. Speaking of which, the screenplay is yet again rinse and repeat. So, it’s no surprise that the women come off badly, yet again. Shirley has given birth to monsters but that’s Perry’s ‘middle-aged mother’ bias that is a stock character in all his films. Naturally, as the ‘father figure’ designee is missing or hen-pecked by the wife---this same sweet mother role—manliness never plays any significant part in Perry’s world. The women are conniving while the males are reactionary to acts of evil and kindness depending on the mood they’re supposed to be in. That leaves Big Happy Family’s with huge gaps to fill. For, how can Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) gripe at her husband so openly yet cannot dare discipline her two young sons? Kimberly (Shannon Kane)—the ‘older rich sister’ constantly works on her husband’s nerve yet crumbles the very first instance when he stands up to her.
The few men here are woefully one-dimensional: Byron (rapper Bow Wow) is the ‘troubled young man’ who is being yanked between Karen (Brandi Milton)his baby mamma, whose shrilly drawl epitomizes the term generic at its basest, and his current girl Rose (Chontelle Moore)who has her manicured claws sunk deeply in him. The other males are older and married but just as wearisome of their respective partners. Perry has repeated this theme so often that at one point he himself (Madea) pointedly shouts to one of them to finally, ‘be the man’. That, ironically, is what these men think they’re being; providing for their families, not cheating and, most importantly, bearing the brunt of their wives’ collective emotions. Perry isn’t a nuanced director so we never get to look behind this façade to see the alternatives for the men to explore or that what the women portray is the requisite toughness needed to survive in a man’s world.
Then, there’s Madea of course going about her business in a hail of clichés…snapping away like a fierce hyena for a few quick, cheap laughs instead of setting an example for her wayward family. Sadly, the feminist streak that initially made her interesting has fully receded now into caricature. She’s not even concerned about her niece’s suffering…she just wants to round everyone up and ‘do up’ whomever needs scolding.
It’s not just that there aren’t enough funny moments to hide the film’s disengenuousness but it’s also only just now that the franchise threatens to storm even crasser popular culture references. This one ends poorly on the set of The Maury Povich show, with a huge non-funny skit that should have clearly been edited out. It is beyond cheesy but as taste level isn’t the issue here, one suspects Tyler Perry will eventually go full throttle and give us something like Madea goes to Washington or Madea in the Big Apple real soon. As a film critic, one hopes always to be right but in this case I seriously hope I’m reading the tea leaves wrong.