In the opening scene of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family, Shirley (Loretta Devine), who is Madea’s niece and also the one sweetly understated person in the movie, learns that her cancer has returned. She implores her escort to the doctor’s office, the dope-smoking matron Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), to tell ”all my children.” And Bam, in a marijuana daze, thinks that she’s being told to go home and watch All My Children. This goes back and forth for awhile (somewhere in comedy heaven, Groucho Marx is smiling, or maybe cringing). Then Mr. Brown (David Mann), who has diabetes, walks into the same doctor’s office and is informed that he needs a prostate exam. There follows the inevitable slew of jokes about manhood, violation, rubber gloves, etc. It’s no wonder that when we finally see Perry’s joyfully strident, linebacker-size Madea bickering at a drive-in window, she sounds almost subtle by comparison. Then she drives her vintage Buick right through the fast food restaurant’s front doors. So much for subtlety.
Madea’s Big Happy Family — let me issue a gigantic nonspoiler and tell you that the title is ironic — presents Tyler Perry at full melodramatic throttle, which is just about the only way he knows how to roll. Big jokes, big emotions, big plot revelations, big character outlines. At a certain point, though, I did have to ask: Given his redemptive affection for loud, eccentric matriarchs, why did Perry decide to portray every woman in the film who’s under 60 as a belligerent, ball-busting harridan? The movie centers on the fractured and troubled nuclear-family relationships of Shirley’s three adult children, and in every case, the women involved are intensely unsympathetic. Byron (Shad ”Bow Wow” Moss), a reformed drug dealer, has a hideously hostile baby mama (Teyana Taylor) with a foghorn voice that won’t turn off, as well as a girlfriend (Lauren London) who wears her high-maintenance haughtiness with disquieting pride. Byron’s two sisters aren’t any better: Kimberly (Shannon Kane), an upscale real estate agent, hasn’t a kind word or glance to offer her very nice husband (Isaiah Mustafa), and the more downscale Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) treats her gas-station-owner husband (Rodney Perry) like a servant. These three women have way too much snap in every sense. They make the entitled queens of The Real Housewives of Atlanta look like members of a convent.
Yet now that I’ve stated what feels like the inevitable complaint about Tyler Perry’s tendency toward overly shrill, broad bombast, let me say: While I was watching Madea’s Big Happy Family, I couldn’t deny that it plays. Madea, as always, is a figure of towering lowdown wit (Madea to the baby mama, after she shows up in a funny hat: ”Sit down, you black leprechaun look-alike! You look like you came out of a box of chocolate Lucky Charms!”). And the secrets about the past that this family is sitting on threaten to turn the movie into an African-American Oedipus Rex. The revelations are jaw-dropping and, in their way, intense. As a filmmaker, Perry lets no one on screen get away with looking like a victim, but he presents their messed-up lives, in part, as broken-mirror reflections of the legacy of a racist society. That’s a great theme. I hope that some day Perry will find it within himself to make a great movie out of it. B?