When Tyler Perry is portraying Madea, there’s a sparkle in his eye each time the furious, glowering, towering old gray battle-ax slips in a reference to the wild woman she once was, back in the age of Civil Rights and soul kitchens. Madea, of course, is outwardly a fuddy-duddy, a primly dressed church lady, always cocking an eyebrow of disapproval and scolding other people for their sins. But she’s also a gun-toting troublemaker who has zero respect for “the po-po.” She’s an outlaw at heart. And in Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, she slips in some quick notes of bawdy nostalgia going back to the days when she was “on that pole” (i.e., a stripper), when she hawked Christmas “trees” (i.e., marijuana), when she was on the “black market” (i.e., peddling her own flesh to survive), and when she “marched” with Jesse Jackson (but they weren’t standing up get it?). There’s enough casually outlandish behavior in Madea’s backstory to make one think that Madea: The Early Years can’t be far behind and, in fact, might not be a bad way to go.
Until then, we’re stuck with A Madea Christmas, which has to be about the tenth movie in which Perry gathers a handful of characters in a house and lets the melodramatic soap-opera conflicts crackle and strike. Given that his voluminous filmmaking schedule has been accompanied by eight seasons of the TBS show Tyler Perry’s House of Payne (which is often two or three degrees subtler than his movies), there’s no doubt that he’s got a special gift for churning out this stuff by the yard. And make no mistake, it is a gift, because just about every time I sit down to watch a Tyler Perry movie, I have a similar reaction, which is that for half an hour or so I’m rolling my eyes at the crudity of the setups, the loud, placard-worthy two-dimensionality of the characters (Perry is one of the only directors who can overstate understatement). But then, at a certain point, I find that, yes, I’ve been sucked in (sort of). I’m still not totally buying these characters, but damn if I’m not involved. You can see, and hear, the clanking of his melodramatic machinery the gears and pulleys of emotion but by the time the movie is over, you’ve been wedged into those gears; they have you.
A Madea Christmas is a guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner message movie that features the semi-novelty of flipping the races as far as where the forces of intolerance are coming from. Lacey (Tika Sumpter), a conservative-looking Barbie doll of a middle-school teacher, is spending Christmas at her country home along with her mother, her great-aunt Madea, and the man she has deceptively told them is her “farm hand” that’s because he’s white, and also because he’s (secretly) her husband. His name is Conner (Eric Lively), and he’s as ideal a specimen of handsome good-liberal enlightenment as Sidney Poitier was back in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Poitier’s Mr. Perfect had to battle the forces of upper-crust patrician racism. In the case of Conner, the problem comes down to Lacey’s mom, Eileen (Anna Maria Hosford), who is so busy pinning her problems on racism that most of the stories she tells about the white man’s sins are lies.
Just to be sure we get the message black people can be just as prejudiced as whites! Perry throws in Conner’s parents, a couple of born-to-have-their-own-sitcom rednecks played by the crack team of Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy. The joke is that beneath their parochial down-home blinders, they’re mushy-hearted liberals too. The more that they and Madea winkingly insult each other, the greater friends they become. It’s all a slightly raunchy Yuletide lovefest, except that Lacey is hanging on to the Big Secret of who her husband is. She has also hired her old boyfriend’s corporation to sponsor her school’s Christmas jubilee, and even here there’s a hint of cultural melodrama: The corporation wants no reference at all made to Jesus. Can the jubilee go on? During this tempest in a teapot, it sounded, at times, like Perry had collaborated on the script with Bill O’Reilly.
Over the years, Tyler Perry’s movies haven’t gotten any worse, but they haven’t gotten better either, so they now carry the added disadvantage of overfamiliarity. Madea is still a witty character, but the gutter wisdom of her tossed-off verbal hand grenades can’t shock us anymore; even the outtakes that play through the closing credits feel like reruns. Of course, it’s not as if I expect Perry to take some time off. Churning out movies like a one-man studio system is what he does. But I’d say that he could truly use a screenwriting collaborator to open up his vistas. He’s earned the right to stretch, and at this point he’d be doing even the most devoted members of his audience a favor if he did. B-