Apparently the reports of Tyler Perry "retiring" his delirious drag act, Mabel "Madea" Simmons, were - to pull a paraphrase - greatly exaggerated. Instead of putting the Mad Woman of the Ghetto to rest once and for all, the hilarious he/she has been back in both movie (Big Happy Family) and stage play form. The most recent example is the holiday themed A Madea Christmas. Rushed onto the boards in time for a whirlwind tour (and eventual DVD/Blu-ray release), it represents the second phase in the cantankerous old grandmother's media stance. Where before she was a joke spouting malapropisms and misguided Bible verse, she is now the joking voice of cultural reason. As part of this conversion from pratfall to preacher, Perry moves away from his milking melodramatics to a more straightforward sense of story. The results may not be classic, but when they contain Madea, they definitely find a way to make the season much, much brighter.
Hardworking housemaid Margaret (Cheryl "Pepsii" Riley) wants to be with her family on Christmas. Sadly, the snooty clan she works for - John Mansell (Maurice Lauchner), his haughty wife Lilian (Chandra Currelley-Young) their college age daughter China (Tamar Davis) and virginal son Japan (Zuri Craig) - won't let her leave their Cape Cod estate. They need her for their annual holiday shindig. Since she has always adored Margaret, China decides to help her out. She contacts the sad servant's relatives - Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), ornery Aunt Madea (Perry), daughter Lucy (Alexis Jones) and sons George (Jeffery Lewis) and Eric (Tony Grant) - and invites them out for the weekend. Being that they are from 'the hood,' Lilian bristles at the suggestion. As bumbling old cook Hattie (Patrice Lovely) stumbles around, causing problems, this clash of cultures will lead to the typical seasonal struggles - betrayal, battles, and more than a few bad feelings.
A Madea Christmas isn't so much a return to form as a continuation of where Tyler Perry 2.0 thinks his current career is at. After the less than spectacular showing of his last Direct-to-DVD play, the uneven Laugh to Keep From Crying, the prickly presence of everyone's favorite gun-totting terror makes for instant accessibility. Instead of digging through a slew of new characters, Perry brings back Madea, her Chronic smoking sexed-up old age sidekick Bam, and for added slapstick silliness, a I Love Lucille Ball of color kook named Hattie. This threesome, given most of the meaningful comic material, delivers over and over again. Even with the work in its most rough and unrefined form (Perry comes out at the end to announce this was the first time the play had been produced for an audience...ever) there are scenes of sidesplitting revelry. For longtime lovers of what Perry does, all will seem well in his insular world. For those looking for a window into what makes him so popular, A Madea Christmas won't help.
First, there is the storyline. Lilian wants China to marry a med student named Bobby since he comes from a wealthy and well connected family. She is also hiding a secret about her own marriage. China is still in love with Margaret's son Eric. He's a decent guy and attends an all-black state college. Hattie is actually a relative, willed her position by the rich uncle who gave the Mansells their money in the first place. And Madea - well, Madea is the corporeal school voice of reason in a world overrun by belligerent kids, horrid hip-hop, and a general disrespect for the older generations. This means that for several minutes at a time, the play drops the plot so our know-it-all narrator can scold everyone within earshot about what's wrong with black society circa 2011. Before, the manipulative nature of his narratives - overloaded with subplots and twists - would take over, leaving the audience slighted and a bit shell shocked. Now, like a stand-up using a surreal format to support his shtick, Perry provides the basics - and then fine tunes the times when he can go ballistic.
In another new development, he has also dropped the whole "men are pigs and women are long suffering saints" dynamic. There are no wife beaters here, no physically or psychologically abusive cads for Madea and her hot pot of grits to go gonzo on. Similarly, the ladies all have issues, from misplaced snobbishness to outright insanity. We don't have the dying matriarch looking for one last chance at familial togetherness. Instead, Perry puts the pawns in place and then lets Madea manipulate them to his/her own ends. About the closest we get to the archetype is Margaret, and even then she is dressed down for being too much of an apologist and not enough of a parent. When everything is worked out, it does cause concern (can someone be the mother in law to someone she used to work for while also being the mother in law for the child she helped raise from said person???) but the results are what Perry is after, and there's enough spirit and spunk here to keep everyone happy. A Madea Christmas may not recall the glories of his past, but it's pretty good Gospel veneration nonetheless.
While this critic is not sure if it was a flaw in his own copy of the production, or a sign that his Blu-ray player is about to give up the ghost, there were several times during the viewing experience of A Madea Christmas where some clearly artificial noise and onscreen feedback was visible flashing within the frame. It was always associated with the fabric design on the center coach, and never appeared at any other time. If that piece of furniture was present, it would appear. Again, this may be a mere fluke, or something more serious. Anyway, the rest of the 1080p, 1.78:1 encode is pretty good. Colors are bright and details are easily defined. Video director Derrick Doose does a really good job of keeping things from getting too "stagey" and the multi-level set is put to excellent use.
Where the Blu-ray release really shines is in the audio department. When Perry's cast sings, they really sell the material - and the fantastic lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix captures it all in channel challenging joy. While the dialogue can occasionally get lost in the theater acoustics, the music is magnificent. Even better, Lionsgate has finally stopped fading out after every number, allowing the cheers of the audience to resonate as the performers prepare to return to the script. There is also standard Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation which is good, but not as glorious as what the updated format provides.
Before going to any of the other added content, hit the "bloopers" button and watch as Perry and his company spend eight minutes muffing up entire sequences from this showcase. It's perhaps the funniest material of any on the entire Blu-ray. We also get a Making-of (which is very EPK in its approach), and a collection of interview clips with the cast. Many discuss their fondest Christmas memories. It's all very superficial and part of the standard Tyler Perry home video approach. No commentary. No in-depth analysis. Just fun and faith.
With others now trying to mimic his style and success (take the terrible Joyful Noise, for example), Tyler Perry has gone from maverick to part of the mainstream (more or less). He is a recognizable brand and now makes it his goal to broaden his model with more non-Madea fare and other unusual projects (he's about to star in a film which he did not direct or write). Still, he understands that the wisecracking old battleaxe equals money, and as long as there are audiences will to pay, he will push back the thoughts of retirement and keep the cash "cow" up and operating for the time being. While not his best, A Madea Christmas still earns an easy Recommended rating. It may not start a new tradition in your holiday household, but as an example of what this man does best, it's a delightful decking of the halls.
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