While it's taken time and tenacity, Tyler Perry is slowly trending toward the mainstream. It's a mutual thing - his cultural profile has increased dramatically since TBS began wallpapering his sitcoms - House of Payne, Meet the Browns - all over its sizable Superstation network. Even better, his films have branched out beyond merely recreating his singular stage plays. He's even gone the route of adapting difficult works - like For Colored Girls - in hopes of broadening his range. Of course, as long as he has that pot-smoking, gun-toting, kid-smacking battle axe Madea to rely on, he'll never go broke. As a matter of fact, the defiant drag icon may be his most lasting legacy, a truism built on the anarchic stereotype of the African American matriarch. His latest film, Madea's Big Happy Family takes everything Perry has learned over the last few years, filtered through a more standard narrative formula and, as a result, manages to be the first effort in his catalog that doesn't merely cater to the converted. Even if you don't like his 'Go with God' message, the movie itself is funny and heartfelt enough to win you over.
Shirley (Loretta Devine) is dying. She has cancer and her last wish is to get the entire family together so she can tell them the bad news. Unfortunately, her kids are nasty and full of themselves. Daughter Tammy (Natalie Desselle-Reid) is a horrible shrew who demeans her well meaning husband of 17 years (Rodney Perry), while successful sister Kimberley (Shannon Kane) constantly tests the patience of her long suffering spouse (Isaiah Mustafa). Only the youngest, Byron (Shad "Bow Wow" Moss), seems settled, even with all his current baby mama drama and a prior stretch in jail for dealing drugs. With little time left, Shirley wants things settled. The rest of the clan can't be bothered. It's up to ornery aunts Bam (Cassi Davis) and Madea (Perry) to make things right, even if some of the strategies they employ will unearth some long dormant secrets.
It's interesting to watch Tyler Perry work without his usual measured net. In the past, he drew on his wealth of wildly successful road show productions, piecemealed together a talented cast, and then basically made sure that the camera was in focus and the stock was running properly. No panache. No finesse. Nothing more than a Kevin Smith with a proclivity toward catering to a different demographic. But Madea's Big Happy Family is different. Actually, it's a bit more of the same but with enough change and accomplished choices to moderate the usual melodrama. The simplified story signals that things will be different. No real raging subplots. No desire to expand the narrative beyond where the filmmaker and his fans are familiar and comfortable. By using the family reunion dynamic as a means of getting his point across, Perry can play around with anything he wants. In this case, he takes Madea out of her comfort zone - i.e., wisecracking voice of reason - and turns her into a crusader of sorts, the champion for the family unit that this frazzled clan clearly needs.
For once, all the handwringing and high moralizing seems on point. There's no more meaningful discussion than what brings together, and separates, an otherwise close family and Perry punctuates that fact perfectly. We feel horrible for Shirley, considering her condition, and despise the entirety of her brood for being so self-centered and silly. But as Madea steps in and starts reading the various riot acts, we start to see things more clearly. This is some of the sharpest and best writing of Perry's career, insights incorporated effortlessly into the vast vaudevillian measure of his humor. Even more compelling is the decision to cut the men in this movie a break. Before, Perry was constantly channeling a "men are pigs" and "women are saints" dynamic that crew tired in its obviousness. Here, the gals have gone over, acting foolish and frivolous without any real rhyme or reason for their actions. As we get to the end and issues of abuse and paternity come into play, the girls still suffer. It is them that need to be taught a lesson, since in the world of Tyler Perry, the matriarch reigns supreme.
The result is a full-fledged film, one that actually feels like a complete thought from beginning to end. While other movies in Perry's canon carry equal value, Madea's Big Happy Family actually argues for its entertainment value. The acting is excellent, the direction focused and secure. Tears are as plentiful as laughs and there are legitimate reasons to root both for and against this brood. Does Perry guild the lily a bit by including the single most obnoxious character of his entire career here (the braying hoochie hate crime Sabrina)? Does he try to pile on too much at the beginning before mellowing out to a more acceptable pace for the rest of the time? Does he still trade in topic areas that Hollywood handed over to the past decades ago? The answer is indeed "Yes" to all these inquiries, and yet this movie appears the better for it. It's as if the last few years were practice and Perry finally stumbled on the proper combination of heritage and humor. Will this still be a tough slog for anyone not willing to give the demo-specific filmmaker a shot? Sure, but as a great place to become familiar with his fixations, Madea's Big Happy Family is a fine place to start. It's a good old fashioned entertainment.
Even though he makes his movies on a relatively small budget and doesn't really excel as a visionary, the 1080p AVC encode of Madea's Big Happy Family is excellent. Colors are bright and details are sharp. Since Perry likes to mix backdrops, both urban and more 'down home,' the contrasts come up clearly on the high definition format. Everything pops, from the make-up work to the wardrobe, giving the film a professional shimmer and sheen. There are no artifacts or defects, and the overall 1.79:1 image looks excellent.
Now here's something unusual. Unlike past films, which are more like musicals what with inclusion of so many soul and inspirational songs and performances, Madea's Big Happy Family only boasts a single set-piece number. Everything else is either inferred or part of the soundtrack. So it's odd that Lionsgate would pump up the sonics with a full blown lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track. The multiple mix does little beyond giving everything a crystal clarity, and since there are no major tunes to contend with, the added channels see limited use. Still, the entire aural aspect of this release is superb, just like any contemporary Hollywood film.
As with most Perry productions, the extras here are more EPK that enlightening. "Byreen": The Baby Mama From Hell focuses on the character of Sabrina and the actress that brings her to vivid life. Ties that Bind deal with family issues while Madea's Family Tree tries to explain the complicated interpersonal relations between the various Perry fixtures. Finally, there's a featurette which see the seminal Mr. Brown going one on one with reality talk show mainstay Maury Povich. It's fun - at least for a while. That's it. No commentary. No other Behind the Scenes or Making-of material.
Tyler Perry will always be an acquired taste. For some, he's comic caviar. For others, he's a bucket of bottomless swill. The truth perhaps lies somewhere dead center. He can be effortlessly funny and miserably mannered. His movies often sink or swim on a specific idea or the likeable/lame way it is executed. So it goes without saying that Madea's Big Happy Family will be equally embraced and disregarded. Give it a chance, however, and you'll be rewarded with something both heartwarming and hilarious. While the Blu-ray format doesn't do the movie any favors (it doesn't do it a disservice, either), the film itself is a Highly Recommended romp. Here's hoping it's nothing but bigger and better for Perry from here on out. With only the mainstream left to conquer, it seems like he's finally prepared for the challenge.
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