Tyler Perry's career is definitely at a crossroads. Since 1998, he's been the master of the urban inspirational dramedy, a stage production combining old school R&D, gospel shout outs, simplistic morality tales, and a feisty pot-smoking drag character named Madea. While more than a little formulaic, it found an underserved audience ready to be entertained and evangelized, and within a decade he went from a homeless dreamer to a noted cultural phenomenon. Such success has allowed him to broaden his horizons, stepping outside the "chittlin' circuit" choices he's known for into more mainstream entertainment. For example, he was partially responsible (along with pal Oprah) for the release of last year's award season sensation Precious. This year, he took Ntozake Shange's "choreopoem" For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf and turned it into an acting tour de force for his amazing minority stars. So what is he doing going back to the gray-haired hag that made him a superstar? The answer, known as Madea's Big Happy Family, is because Perry has something substantive to say about the African American experience circa 2010, and such cross-dressing antics appear to be the only way to get his points across.
Shirley is a devoted mother of five disgruntled children. Her three daughters couldn't be more different. One is a bossy real estate agent. Another is an equally domineering domestic goddess. And the last is an old maid who can't seem to get a man. Her two sons are also trouble. One is slow, seemingly suffering from a birth-related mental malady. The other is a drug pushing problem that wants to go straight, but can't seem to get his money grubbing girlfriend and brash baby mama to understand his aims. When she discovers she only has six months to live, she calls on her Aunt Bam and family friend Mabel "Madea" Simmons to step in and help set her family straight. It won't be easy, however. Secrets and a lack of forgiveness have pushed this clan as close to the edge as possible, and for her part, Madea is not one for subtlety.
Unlike his previous Punch and Judy potboilers, all kitchen sink dramatics and vaudevillian farce, Madea's Big Happy Family is not really a full-fledged play. It lacks the cohesiveness of something like I Can Do Bad All By Myself or Madea's Family Reunion. And there are no Browns (boo!). Indeed, Perry purposefully twists the first act tragedy in such a way so that the last 90 minutes can be devoted to one thing and one thing only. Up until his extended finale, we get the standard story machinations: kids who don't listen to their parents and/or elders; husbands getting henpecked by their berating wives; women unable to make sense of their place within the interpersonal pecking order of life; goofy thieves; arrogant hood rats; trifling whores; and, of course, a homunculus Greek Chorus in a baggie dress and bad wig. With its death's door premise and reconciliation approach, Madea's Big Happy Family will seem similar to all his other stage works. Nothing is subtle. Everything is obvious, and when you come right down to it, that's the way his fanbase wants it. Even as the cast break out into emotionally apropos songs, clever combinations of uplifting spirituality and personal empowerment that add a level of ingratiating gravitas to what is already an overstuffed amusement, we sense something is up.
But then Shirley dies (her musical "passing" to Heaven is a CG/sing-along camp classic) and at the family wake, Perry decides to hold court. Addressing each of the plot problems he's set up, he acts as philosopher, guardian, sage, professor, instructor, conscience, parent, and perhaps most importantly, media mouthpiece. At this point in his professional arc, he realizes the impact he can have. He no longer has to put on the dress and act idiotic. Instead, he lets Madea preach - and the audience eats up every joke filled laugh laden lambasting. Perry does have a powerful set of points. He is constantly referencing dignity and pride, personal improvement - and perhaps most importantly - responsibility. He takes on deadbeat fathers, manipulative baby mamas, gold-digging girlfriends, and drug-addicted miscreants. He lectures everyone (and by indirect correlation, us) on how to live, forgive, and find peace without material prosperity. One of the best sections centers around prayer. Perry makes it very clear that asking God for something is not a 'give and get' situation. Sometimes, the answer lies in the road to reaching said faith-based objective. It is never immediate and should be peppered with disappointment and hardship. It's good stuff.
In between the sonic shout-outs to Gladys Knight and Teddy Pendergrass, with occasional interruptions from the cast with their brilliant vocal interpretations of old soul classics, Perry turns the theater into a revival tent, a nostalgic throwback to the days when companies would tour the country, stopping off at local churches to sing and spread the word. But with Madea, and the material he chooses, he proves just how smart he really is. Over 155 minutes of "Jesus Loves Me" would drive even the most blessed viewer to run for the exit. By inserting Motown and funk, smooth Philly grinds and upbeat crowd-pleasers, Perry adds the spoonful of sonic sugar that helps his often stilted messages go down. Yes, there are a few jokes here that make one cringe (the gay riffs at the beginning just beg for a PC response) and we are not dealing with 3D characters and dimensional depth. For the most part, Madea's Big Happy Family is the best Tyler Perry presentation to date. It is not, however, his strongest play. For that, you need a beginning, middle and end. All we have here is a set-up, and a glorious, roof raising payoff.
Unlike previous versions of his stage work, Perry chose to 'film' Madea's Big Happy Family for this Blu-ray release (it could also be a video recording given an unnecessary film "look" in post-production). The 1080p transfer is therefore a little flat, as are all presentations that avoid the 'you are there' feel of tape. The colors are vibrant and the overall appearance of the 1.78:1 image excellent, but we instantly recognize the limitations placed on the picture by the technology embraced. Specifically, there is a lack of detail that is concerning, especially when you consider that Blu-ray represents the highest end visuals a home theater can currently offer. It's weird, but not a deal breaker. For those used to old VHS like transfers, the Blu-ray version of Madea's Big Happy Family looks great.
One place where the Blu-ray doesn't skimp is on the sonic side of things. Again, we don't get a lossless high definition remaster, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio offering is excellent. The dialogue is crystal clear and the music - WOW! The songs showcased here literally jump out of the home theater speakers, filling your viewing space with a combination of performance precision and interpretative emotion that's hard to deny. Even better, Lionsgate allows the audience to REACT this time around. Previous play releases have always 'muted' the crowd's response to the musical interludes. Here, we get every cheer, scream, and set of thunderous applause.
Nothing to great. We get a "Big Happy Family" interview featurette which allows the cast to comment on their specific characters. It's nice, but not noteworthy. Then, there is a puff piece entitled "Working with a Walking, Talking, Breathing Legend" which gives the actors a chance to explain what it's like playing off a recognizable icon like Madea. It's more fun than the other added content. Toss in some trailers, and that's it. Perry is notorious for avoiding the trappings of the digital format. There are no commentaries or in-depth documentaries as part of his packages. Madea's Big Happy Family stays within that trend, even on Blu-ray.
During his post-performance talk with the audience, Perry makes it very clear that the recent death of his mother inspired much of Madea's Big Happy Family - both directly and indirectly. Before she passed, she made her son promise to keep playing the brash, bossy character for as long as audiences would let him (he had previously hinted that he might retire the drag act all together). She also instilled in her son an appreciation for his time on the Earth and the blessings of his current career. Perry has embraced both with Madea's Big Happy Family. It's as much a typical Tyler dissertation as a new, nearly one-man/woman act. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it argues for a new path in Perry's already complicated career. As long as his films make money and draw on an untapped audience reserve, he will continue to be a sound cinematic presence. But with the last act of this unusual entertainment, Perry seems to have found his true voice. While it comes out of the mouth of a man in drag, it's still sensible and very smart...and very, very funny.