Madea's Big Happy Family, the sole Tyler Perry film released in 2011 (which thereby became the first year with only a single Perry release since 2006), crystallises something for me: I don't get Madea. And not in the obvious sense of what that phrase means: by this point, I imagine anyone paying attention to this retrospective has figured out that I - a white, atheistic Midwesterner - don't get what makes Madea ostensibly funny. I mean, I do - in Spike Lee's ever-useful words, it is "coonery", because apparently in the 21st Century, enough Americans of all races still enjoy watching black people stripped of their dignity to make such farce economically viable - but I don't.
That's not what I'm referring to: I mean that I simply don't get what Madea is supposed to represent in Perry's moral worldview. Time and time again, the unresolved question has come up of why the apparent hero of a series of films that unambiguously double as evangelical Christian morality plays is so resistant to Christianity, and Big Happy Family nails that down in a scene where Perry's bellowing parody of matriarchal womanhood straight up refers to "the Christians" in terms that cannot be regarded as anything other than gentle, loving, and wildly condescending mockery. If there was any doubt left that Madea, consistently presented as the source of unfailingly sound, common-sense wisdom, views herself as not merely separate from the organised religion that has given so much shape to the universe of Perry's films and thinking, but in every significant way superior to Christianity and the people who let themselves be governed by the rules of organised religion. What message, if any, this situation is meant to impart, is completely unclear to me; perhaps this speaks to my lack of sophistication on the niceties of Southern Baptism, and perhaps Tyler Perry is one of the most terrible dramatic writers to ever ride that non-talent to tens of millions of dollars.
The film, adapted from Perry's 2010 play - the shortest stage-to-screen turnaround in his career - is once again a melange of family drama and broad farce, though the balance skews a bit more serious than it does in the bulk of the Madea pictures. We have here Shirley (Loretta Devine), who learns at the start of the movie that she is about to finally lose a seven-year battle with cancer; her response is neither fear or sorrow, for her faith gives her the certitude that she is leaving for a better place, but to hope, earnestly, that before her death, she can bring her three children together, patch up all the anger and mistrust that have marked their relationships, and leave this life with a happy family behind her. The problem is that her daughters, Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) and Kimberly (Shannon Kane) can't be in the same room without lambasting one another's parenting skills and general personality flaws, when they're not verbally abusing their husbands, Harold (Rodney Perry) and Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa), while her son, Byron (Shad Moss, better known to most of us as rapper Bow Wow), is always just one weak moment away from returning to a life of drug dealing, to support his son's wretched mother Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), and to keep his shallow girlfriend Renee (Lauren London).
If you have not noticed Madea factoring into all of this, that is because she spends the first half of the movie in a separate plotline, where the ebullient malapropist Mr. Brown (David Mann), in his third feature film appearance, is terrified about his own health prospects, and discovers in the process of having bloodwork done that he is not, after all, the father of his and Madea's daughter Cora (Tamela J. Mann). What draws the two together is the fact that Madea is Shirley's aunt, and she is called in to serve as heavy artillery by Shirley's other aunt, Bam (Cassi Davis, a House of Payne mainstay given her first substantial role in a Perry feature), to lay down that good old-fashioned Madea beatdown to get Shirley's children and grandchildren in line.
Structurally, this isn't really any different than Madea Goes to Jail or Madea's Family Reunion:a torrid family drama that is spiked with the spectacle of Perry in drag, shouting. Even so, there's an X-factor about Big Happy Family that feels weirder than those movies. I wonder if it's simply that the soap opera acrobatics are so much more earnest and dark here; there is, after all, no looming specter of death in most of Perry's earlier work. In that regard, this movie actually resembles the writer-director's The Family That Preys with a huge serving of Madea wedged in, and it's less than surprising that this graft doesn't hold, for at heart, the story of Shirley's march towards death is too muted, though Devine has the good sense not to play for too much sympathy or sorrow, which would only come across as out of place in the company of the clowns and melodramatic caricatures making up the rest of the plot. At any rate, the underlying seriousness of the film fits uncomfortably at best with the slapstick of Madea and company; it is a tension that has been found in several of the director's movies, of course, but in this case, the comedy loses out, with Perry's performance of Madea especially feeling flatter and more strained than he ever has in the role. Taking two years off of the character appears to have intensified the filmmaker's Madea fatigue rather than recharged his batteries: even his wig is limp and worn out. The less said about Taylor's comic relief performance as a character so insufferable that even the other characters don't understand why she's there, the better.
Indeed, the only parts of the film that are suffused with any kind of comic brio - any sense of humor at all that does not ultimately hinge on either Perry or David Mann being shouty, in fact - are the opening credits, a brightly animated sequence set to a Macy Gray song, and the famous series of posters spoofing some of the 2010 Best Picture Oscar nominees; and the fact that I've had to go to the advertising campaign to scrape up something remotely innovative about the film (and that said ad campaign is still a pretty far cry from "funny") speaks to just how tired Big Happy Family is within the Perry family of films. The dramatic A-plot is so ribboned with trite ideas, including a hokey third-act twist that is unpredictable only insofar as it's such an ancient idea that you wouldn't necessarily expect a filmmaker in 2011 to trot it out without a whisper of shame, that I see no reason to discuss it at all: other than Devine, who pushes against the role much less than some of the other genuinely great actresses in Perry films, but still lends it gravity and crucially, convinces us that impending death really isn't the biggest concern in her world, none of the performances are much of anything, one way or another, and the implied message of "Men, the right way to be a husband is to constantly intimidate your nagging shrew of a wife" is as indefensibly misogynist as anything else in the ordinarily woman-friendly director's career.
I take comfort in thinking that even Perry's fandom somewhat agrees with me: adjusted for inflation, Big Happy Family is the lowest-grossing of the major Madea films (excluding the two, Meet the Browns and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, in which she appears only briefly and is not mentioned in the title), and presumably this all has something to do with Perry's decision to take the rest of the year off. Whatever the case, we can be sure that the shrieking phantasm and parody of womanhood is merely resting, not retired, and perhaps when she comes back in Madea's Witness Protection, Perry will have something better in mind than just trotting out his signature character like a show pony, propping up a weak-kneed plot that goes nowhere and communicates nothing that he hasn't already said elsewhere. Till then, a horrifying, braying old grandma and her gun will always be playing.