I had forgotten just how much I hated Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" until I sat down to watch its sequel, "Madea's Family Reunion." Perry, who wrote, produced, and starred in the first film and who now also directs the follow-up, is a highly polarizing figure, coming to Hollywood with a massive fan base built on years of touring with his gospel plays, but with just as many detractors put off by a deep-rooted storytelling ineptitude.
Perry's concoctions are melodramatic comedies so broad in their execution that even Jon Lovitz's "Acting!!" character from "Saturday Night Live" would deem them over-the-top. I have been told by Perry's fans (who take negative reviews of his work more personally and vocally than any other fan base out there) that this is quite natural for the gospel play circuit. And what I tell them in return is that while it may fit the specialty stage, it does not fit the screen. At all. Period. Perry's stories just flat out don't work as movies. For many reasons, really, but chief among them is the sad fact that Perry is a remarkably lousy storyteller.
For "Reunion," we can see the problems from the start, right in Perry's screenplay. He has no sense of how to handle exposition, and so we get clumsy, fumbled bits of dialogue like: "In less than ninety days, you're going to be marrying one of the most eligible bachelors in Atlanta!" (this is said by one sister to another, as if the second sister had no idea of her own impending nuptials) or "I just came from my mother-of-the-bride dress fitting!" (this is said by the mother of the bride, Perry's unwieldy way of informing us that she is the mother of the bride).
Later in the film, as a charming bus driver is attempting to woo one of the sisters, we get a Greek chorus of passengers explaining to us in big bold letters the subtext of their discussion. As a means of pushing him away (or at least testing his worth), she tells him she has two children; one of the passengers then spits out "Two kids? He won't say yes now!" He does, of course, say yes, and the passengers discuss the good nature of the driver, vocalizing what the audience already knew. Perry does not grant the audience the opportunity to read between the lines - the text is too big to fit anything between them, and whatever space might be left, side characters describe to us quite loudly.
For what it's worth, "Reunion" is a better film than "Diary," but this fact does not have anything to with the screenplay (which is just as awful as the first), nor does it have anything to do with Perry's promotion to director (his direction is as generic and invisible as possible), nor does it have anything to do with the far less screen time devoted to Perry in his two Klump/Big Momma-esque get-ups: crazy-and-mean-old-lady-in-drag Madea and her farts-all-the-time brother (both characters are as obnoxious and useless as before, only there's less to see, which is a good thing, although they still pop in at all the wrong moments, which is a bad thing).
No, the success - or, I should say, lack of total failure - of "Reunion" comes entirely from its cast. With dreadful non-actor Kimberly Elise written out of the picture (her character's absence here goes completely unmentioned, not that we miss her), we now get a new set of Madea offspring. The sisters here are played by Rochelle Aytes and Lisa Arrindell Anderson; their mother is Lynn Whitfield; Cicely Tyson (returning from the first movie) and Maya Angelou play family elders; Keke Palmer (of "Akeelah and the Bee") turns up as a troubled orphan; Blair Underwood and Boris Kodjoe fill out the male roles.
These are all excellent actors, and yet they are severely wasted on characters that range from underwritten to overwritten to badly written to all three at once. (If such a feat of lousy writing is possible, I believe Perry is the man for the job.) Underwood's role as the abusive boyfriend mirrors the similarly ham-fisted storyline of "Diary;" overdone to the point of mustache-twirling hilarity, the character exists only so we can later cheer as Aytes beats him with a frying pan. Whitfield exists only to be a demonic mother (she tells Aytes to stick with Underwood, even if he beats her, because he has money); alas, she does not get beaten with any housewares. Tyson and Angelou exist only so they can pop up at the titular reunion, spout a few sermons about being good people in an age when men say dirty words a lot and women walk around with no clothes on; they are not people, but instant monologue machines. Palmer exists only so we can see a bad kid gone good thanks to Madea's questionable child rearing techniques.
It is, ultimately, a movie about very stupid people who do very stupid things, only so the audience can sit back and wonder why they're being so stupid, and shouldn't they start doing things less stupidly?, and hooray, they're not stupid anymore! This is a story told in one dimension, only loudly, with bad dialogue and soapish situations and ill-timed fart jokes all shouted at us at the exact same time, so we can't really decipher any of it. Getting involved in the story is a lost cause, really, as Perry never bothers to effectively weave his various plotlines - we randomly jump from the tragedy of domestic violence to the romance of cautious love to the "hilarity" of Perry's cranky old man character farting all the time, these scenes mixed and matched with no concern for rhythm or flow. Drop Perry as an on-screen presence, lose the overblown melodrama, and one or two of these subplots might have made for a passable tale. As is, it's a jumbled, hackneyed mess, the kind future cinematic failures might go down as being called "of Tyler Perry proportions."
Oddly enough, there's not much family reunion in this movie about a family reunion. We get a collage of half-assed subplots, then about a half hour's worth of the reunion, and wrap up with a wedding so gaudy I'm surprised Liberace's piano didn't pop up somewhere. With a title like this, we expect to see the far reaches of Madea's extended family, yet we only meet a few nieces, with a few old ladies dropped in for faux sincerity.
Then again, perhaps this is to be expected from a movie so lazy it actually cues up Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" on the soundtrack during a scene that wants to tell us - you guessed it - they are family. Sheesh.
It should be no surprise that this brand-new production looks sparkling in its anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. A separate pan-and-scan release is also available, for those who actually want such things.
You get four choices for your listening pleasure: Dolby 5.1 surround, Dolby 2.0 stereo, 5.1 Spanish, and 2.0 Spanish. All sound just fine, the English 5.1 track naturally coming off best. (There's not much use for the surround feature, but everything's rich and full.) Optional English and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
The commentary track from Perry is alternately refreshing (the choice to plaster the opening credits with his name over and over and over again was not his, and he's genuinely worried it made him look egotistical, which he thankfully assures us he is not) and distressing (on that wedding finale, he mumbles, "I don't know if I overdid it," to which we collectively yell back, "Yes, you really did!"). Perry begins every other sentence with "This was great…" or "She was great…" or "In this great moment…" The man has no idea he's made a turkey.
"The Making of Madea's Family Reunion" is an overlong (22 minutes) fluff piece in which everyone involved talks about how wonderful it was to work with everyone else. For a laugh, Perry shows up to be interviewed as Madea, which goes over as well as when Stallone interviewed himself as Rocky, which is to say, it doesn't go over well at all.
Ten minutes of deleted scenes have little to offer. For those wondering how bad a scene has to be for it to be cut from a Tyler Perry movie, the answer will not be found here; these clips are merely mediocre and seem to have been cut for time, not for lousiness.
"Marriage Madea Style" (8 min.) is a peek at the making of the garish wedding finale. If you want to learn how you, too, can have real-life harp-playing angels dangling from the ceiling of your own wedding venue, this is the featurette to watch.
"Gaither Plantation" (4 min.) examines the setting for the reunion, a former slave plantation. That's a lot of history to tackle, but this feature is completely unwilling to go deep enough, content instead with merely mentioning how this home for slaves is now the site of a fictional black family get-together, and hey, isn't that something?
"Making the Music" (5 min.) purports to be all about, well, the making of the music featured in the film, but it's really just another chance for everyone to say how great Perry is. You see, in addition to writing, directing, producing, and acting, he also wrote many of the film's songs. What a guy.
Finally, we get a slew of trailers - one for "Akeelah and the Bee," the rest for a wide supply of Tyler Perry merchandise.
With "Reunion," Perry officially becomes a top name in bad movies. While not nearly as offensive or dim-witted as "Diary," this one's still a gigantic mess, based almost entirely on a screenplay that fails on every conceivable level. Even if you think Perry has some important messages to deliver about respect and faith and family, you have to admit that his delivery is as poor as they get. Skip It.