Madea's Family ReunionReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/25/06 10:05:50
“Madea’s Family Reunion” is writer-producer-star Tyler Perry’s cinematic follow-up to “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” a bizarre blend of overwrought melodrama and screeching slapstick that enraged critics, enraptured audiences and shocked Hollywood went it appeared out of nowhere last year to gross over fifty million dollars. This one will probably pull in similar numbers at the box-office (no doubt benefitting from the largesse of both a criminally underserved audience of African-American moviegoers who aren’t interested in shoot-em-up’s or gross-out comedies and critics forced to attend public screenings since Lionsgate refused to screen it in advance) but the film itself is, if possible, even worse than the original–an indigestible stew of sentiment, sanctimony and silliness that has been slapped together by Perry (making his directorial debut) in a haphazard manner that begs unfavorable comparisons to the work of Ed Wood, and not just because Wood looked more convincing dressed as a woman.Not surprisingly, the film (like its predecessor, based on Perry’s popular stage play of the same name) follows the template of the first film almost exactly–it haphazardly throws together a serious subject matter, a sermon or two (mostly about love and forgiveness) and broad comedy turns featuring a brash, abrasive, pot-smoking, gun-toting old woman who is clearly played by a man (Perry himself, one of three roles) in wildly unconvincing drag. The main portion of the story centers on two sisters–Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson)–and how a lifetime of suffering under the thumb of a cruel and domineering mother (Lynn Whitfield) has helped to screw them up in the present. Lisa is engaged to a rich and suave investment banker (Blair Underwood) who uses her as his regular punching bag while Vanessa has been so damaged by her past–let’s just say that Mom won’t be winning any humanitarian awards–that when a perfectly decent, hunky and God-fearing man comes along (in the guise of Boris Kadjoe), she instinctively fears that he will turn out to be a monster like everyone else in her life.
If Perry had simply stuck to this material–perhaps toning down some of the histrionics involving the Underwood character, who is portrayed with the subtlety of a Snidely Whiplash character–he might have emerged with a reasonably sincere and well-meaning drama, especially since Anderson and Kadjoe strike enough sparks together to overcome the klutzy writing and directing. However, whatever serious impact the film might have had is immediately shattered every time the Madea character flounces on screen and proves herself to be the kind of audience-alienating device that even Lars von Trier would find inexplicable. A wildly popular character on stage, Madea simply doesn’t translate to the world of cinema at all because while a broadly conceived character such as her can flourish on stage, where everything is heightened and theatrical, the more intimate nature of film instead presents us with a guy inexplicably decked out in unconvincing drag shrieking like a lunatic in virtually every scene while the other actors patiently wait for her to finish so that they can continue with the real story. There is not a single scene in this film featuring Madea that could not have been improved by leaving her on the cutting-room floor.
To pull off a film with elements as disparate as these would require a filmmaker with uncommon skill and grace and Perry is simply not that person. Most of the scenes are awkwardly staged and go on for far too long (a courtship scene on a bus between Anderson and Kadjoe is especially painful) and when all else fails, he gives us montages a-plenty to move things from point A to point B without having to actually explain anything. His message about the perils of abuse is somewhat muted by Madea’s wacky propensity for violence–during the film, she spanks her foster daughter with a belt, while the episode of “Good Times” with Janet Jackson suffering the cruelties of a violent mother armed with a hot iron plays in the background, smacks around a playground bully and advises Lisa to get her revenge with a pot of boiling grits. (Apparently physical abuse is okay as long as it doesn’t involve a blood relative.)Worst of all (or best, depending on your point-of-view) is a wedding sequence that is so hilariously tacky and overblown–if it were a musical number, it would be “Springtime For Hitler”–that it is almost worth sitting through the rest of the film in order to get to it.Because I am a pasty-faced white guy from the suburbs, there will no doubt be many who will argue that I just don’t get either “Madea’s Family Reunion” or the appeal of the Madea character because I am unable to relate to them because of my background. That is nonsense because the very reason that I, and many others, go to the movies in the first place is to look at lives and experiences different from my own–otherwise, I would only go to see movies featuring lapsed Lutherans with awkward facial hair, a snarky manner and a pronounced yen for Milla Jovovich and Chex Mix. However, both the film and the character are so grossly misconceived and executed that I cannot imagine any right-thinking person, regardless of background, who would willingly embrace their respective lunacies with open arms and straight faces. The only positive spin I can possibly put on the success of Perry’s cinematic work is that it may give fresh inspiration to struggling African-American filmmakers everywhere–if crap like his can make him a multi-millionaire, just imagine how well someone might do with a halfway decent movie.
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