24 January 2012

TYLER PERRY: MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION (2006)

Diary of a Mad Black Woman made a lot of money. Like, a whole lot, particularly relative to how much it did not cost to make. If one is in the position of a Lions Gate executive, and one has just released a film that cost practically nothing, and made a huge amount, what does one do? Obviously, make sure the exact same thing happens over and over again, which is why Tyler Perry, the come-from-nowhere hero who brought black evangelical Christian message movies and staggeringly unconvincing drag to American multiplexes, was given a swell contract to keep cranking out movies based on his series of hugely successful plays (which at that point already ran to seven entries). At the same time, a bunch of other studios perked up and noticed that Lions Gate and The Tyler Perry Company had scrounged up a whole new marketing segment, full of something called "black people", who had the temerity to want to see movies in which the protagonist were not twentysomething Caucasian males, throwing out over one hundred years of conventional wisdom, in which everybody wants to see movies about white guys, because that's that the white guys who make all the movies felt like making.

It was a brave new world.

The first of Perry's films under this new deal came out one year after Diary, setting a precedent for February releases that has not only held for Perry's films, but for most movies pitched at an urban audience - I assume we all know what "urban" is a euphemism for in marketing circles, and also that the assy hinterlands of late winter are a fine time for dumping urban movies into theaters, but when the real money starts rolling in, that's when it's time for people like Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper to do what they do.* I will refrain from going to far into that rabbit hole; we have a lot of retrospective to go, yet.

The point being, the second Perry film, Madea's Family Reunion, based upon the third play in the Madea cycle, is actually the first that he directed, and there has not since then been a Tyler Perry script directed by anyone else (nor, barring a fucking strange cameo in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, has he acted under anyone else's guidance to this point; this will have changed by the end of 2012). It suggests many things, one of which is that the chief problem with Diary was indeed that its director, Darren Grant, lacked Perry's innate understanding of how best to handle the peculiar tonal shifts of Perry's screenplay; at any rate, Family Reunion is altogether the better film. At the same time, Perry's own performance of the titular Mabel "Madea" Simmons, doyenne of sass and the constant threat of gun violence, is also a hell of a lot better, so it can't all be to his credit that the new film is better than the first. At any rate, the screenplay isn't in any particular way stronger (it is, in some key ways, worse), so it can't be that, either.

Leaving that aside for the moment, the film tells another story of a woman trapped in a horrible, abusive relationship, who escapes to the comforting arms of Madea, who sagely advises her that the best response is to burn the holy shit out of her attacker. A very satisfying notion, undoubtedly, I remain befuddled by how someone as aggressively unchurched and vengeful as Madea can be made into the lesson-dispensing centerpiece of an entire cinematic/theatrical universe pivoting on the precept, "let go, let God", though this paradox is less script-breaking here than in Diary, by virtue of Madea not being such an enraged monster from the Id, slicing her way through couches with a chainsaw and waving a gun at ever homind shape she encounters. The gun is still there, sure, but it doesn't go off so many times.

So, the ingredients that make this one different: a much bigger cast and more plots, for a start. The title comes from the fact that Madea is busily trying to arrange a huge reunion of all the dozens and dozens of Simmonses in Atlanta, and while this is happening, she's obliged to help with a number of crises: her granddaughter Lisa (Rochelle Aytes), the fiancée of the very, very nasty Carlos (Blair Underwood) is one of them, as is Lisa's sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), currently living with Madea and surly, flatulent Uncle Joe (Perry, role #2) with her two young children, and fretting in all sorts of neurotic ways about how to keep them safe, while also fighting her attraction to handsome bus driver Frankie (Boris Kodjoe). For her part, Madea is presently taking care of a foster child, Nikki (Keke Palmer), forced on her by court order as a result of her breaking house arrest in Diary - and incidentally, I had no idea that there was anything resembling continuity between the Madea pictures, and I am delighted to learn that I was wrong.

Madea is the title character, and the sun around which the plot orbits, but she is not the focus; ultimately, the story is mostly about the separate tales of Lisa and Vanessa, and how they are slowly drawn together as both girls learn to deal with their mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), who is unbelievably evil. I mean that literally. It turns out that she has, essentially, sold Lisa to Carlos in exchange for keeping her wealthy and him out of prison - whatever secrets they hold on each other are left undisclosed, but you can tell that it must be awful by the way the cluck and plot and flirt gleefully with one another in the ripe delight of their own viciousness, like Edmund and Goneril done by Cecil B. DeMille. And this is by far the nicest thing Victoria does to her daughters.

I would love to know what in the hell goes on in Perry's mind, that he can only think to construct a drama around three types of characters: sensitive, romantic women with dormant Christian morals that only need the love of a good man to be roused; depraved monsters of greed and abuse; and shrieking comic harpies that wear dresses and enormous comic fake boobs but do not, in any way, resemble women who actually exist in the real world. There's more to it than that, of course; there are many supporting players, including ones played by Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson (a repeat of her Diary character), the latter of whom gets a gigantic monologue near the end that comes from nowhere at all, but is staged and performed with the most glorious heightened excess; I will confess that as batshit as it was in the context of the plot, the moment worked, if only because Tyson and Perry so obviously believed in it, tortured gesticulations and all.

That, as it happens, is my chief takeaway from Madea's Family Reunion: Tyler Perry is a horrible writer and confusing director whose films are weirdly magnetic anyway, because he throws himself into everything he's doing 100% (I will admit to reading ahead a bit, but this is a good place to start developing a thesis). The comparison between this film and Diary is useful, because at heart they are basically the same narrative (wronged woman gets revenge, both physical and material, on her evil rich significant other; everybody is saved by recognising the healing power of Christ except for Madea, who would, if she met Jesus, almost certainly pull a gun on Him, and is nevertheless our hero and icon); both suffer from impossible characters drawn in the crudest, most straightforward This Is Good and That Is Wicked dichotomies imaginable; both blend ridiculous melodrama with even more ridiculous drag and fart humor. But Madea's Family Reunion is miles better - no, scratch that, miles more watchable; it is still not good. It is not good, though, in bold, weird ways, and while the dysfunctional script in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, married to slack direction, resulted in a shrill, unappealing mess, the dysfunctional script and operatically excessive direction of Madea's Family Reuntion land someplace closer to outsider art than bad moviedom.

Perry may not know his way around a camera, and he may have absolutely no shred of style - unless combustively awful day-for-night counts as "style" - but he has passion, and he turns that onto his actors, who even at their most ludicrous (primarily Lynn Whitfield, who is called upon to play a wicked mother too outrageous for the standards of a Disney princess film) have a warped conviction that virtually nobody in Diary possessed; and there is, of course, Perry's own performance, which dials down the craziness and dials up, of all things, the gravitas of his central matriarch, as though a 6'5" woman with an Adam's apple, a bad wig, and rubber tits could possibly possess gravitas. Of course she can't; but since Perry doesn't know that, he goes right on and acts as though she could. The results are spectacularly weird; but it puts something across regardless, and whether that's the thing Perry wanted to communicate, I cannot say. The film may be too garish to play as a moral lesson, but its pageant-like approach to family history and intense sincerity somehow feels more compelling, if far less persuasive, than a sedate, rational approach to the same material would have. It is, in fact, a bit like Madea: hardly credible as a source of wisdom, but so horrifyingly unique that you hang on its every word, regardless.

3 comments:

Colin said...

Two essays in and you still haven't addressed any possible symbolic intentions on the part of Perry in naming his creation after (a misspelling of) the Greek mythological heroine. Surely, it is not mere coincidence that the Greek Medea took revenge on a faithless husband...or is that giving Perry too much credit?

Tim said...

My understanding - anyone who knows otherwise is invited to correct me - is that "Madea" is a contraction of "My dear", and is a common term of affection for African-American grandmothers.

It is, in general, awfully easy to give Perry too much credit, and I shall not hold it against you.

jjjonatron said...

Man, now I'm about to go watch this.