The unexpected success of Tyler Perry was destined to cause a great deal of distress in Hollywood. After all, his triumphant take on the urban comedy, 2004's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, became an unqualified smash dealing in subjects that Tinseltown tends to avoid. Heavily steeped in African-American cultural dynamics (unapproachable issue #1) and frequently focusing on the role religion plays in daily life (unapproachable issue #2), the narrative touched on forgiveness (unapproachable issue #3), inner conviction (unapproachable issue #4), and personal responsibility (unapproachable issue #5). By doing so, it catered to an audience usually put off by the standard cinematic offering, a demographic devoted to church, family, and ethics. Many dismissed the film, finding it trite, melodramatic, and pat. It was a similar reaction that greeted 2006's pseudo-sequel Madea's Family Reunion. In fact, the criticism was even more strident. Many pointed to Perry, arguing that Reunion was Diary redux, and that after just two feature films, Perry the moviemaker was already repeating himself and running out of ideas. Yet anyone who knows his canon of crafty "Chitlin' Circuit" shows realizes he's barely breached the substantive surface.
Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and Carlos (Blair Underwood) are about to get married, but there's a secret simmering behind their perfect-couple persona. Jealousy and uncontrollable rage leads Carlos to beat his bride-to-be and, instead of lashing out or seeking help, Lisa simply takes it. This comes as a surprise to her sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and her domineering mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa wants her to fight, but she herself is locked in a confusing relationship with a sweet, sincere bus driver named Frankie (Boris Kodjoe) who appears "too perfect" to trust. Mom tells Lisa to simply accept her fate, since there's a substantial fiscal reward in marrying this rich, if morally repugnant, man. As the ceremony looms, tensions between the trio amplify. Eventually, Vanessa's self-righteous relative, Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Perry) must get involved. Already burdened with caring for her semi-senile brother Joe (Perry) and a brand-new foster child, Nikki (Keke Palmer), Madea still makes time for her troubled brood; it's her purpose in life. With Madea's family reunion coming on top of the impending nuptials, this loudmouthed matron has her work cut out for her.
Let's begin this review with a stern, substantive caveat. You have to forget everything you know (if you know anything, that is) about Tyler Perry's Gospel-tinged stage plays before going into Madea's Family Reunion. If you are a fan of these powerful preaching/teaching talent showcases loaded with amazing music, anarchic comedy, and touching tests of family and faith, you may be a tad disappointed in how these entertaining tent shows come across on the silver screen. It is obvious that, as a playwright, Perry knows how to keep a live audience happy. Perry the filmmaker, however, must face Perry the theater ace and come to some kind of comic compromise. Thus we have the strange sort of storyline symbiosis that occurs as part of Family Reunion's reality. We get parts from past shows (Class Reunion and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, to be exact) as well as lines lifted directly from another Madea manifesto, Madea Goes to Jail. In fact, the whole foster-kid concept is a main element of that scattered storyline.
The core narrative thread--Lisa's upcoming wedding to the rich but abusive Carlos--is still intact and the whole undercurrent of familial dysfunction and secret shames suppressed is still part of the picture, but stage favorites The Browns are once again absent, the funeral that sets off the original reunion has been nixed, and instead of focusing on Madea's close family, the final act sprawls across a generational canvas to draw in individuals we've never ever met before in a Perry production. Represented in a completely gratuitous manner by Cicely Tyson and Dr. Maya Angelou, these venerated figures are positioned as the Ultimate Madeas, so to speak, older and far more world-wise than Perry's vaudeville version of the African-American woman. In truth, Madea's Family Reunion is a big, unbridled mess, a pleasant enough experience that tries to do too much, only to use the generosity of its cast and the geniality of its creator to get us over the rough, routine parts.
Thankfully, with the uniformly excellent acting all around (particular kudos go to Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Boris Kodjoe, and Rochelle Aytes) and a decent missive about empowerment and forgiveness at its foundation, Madea's Family Reunion eventually transforms into a warm and inviting entertainment. Perry is still probing as a director, trying things and experimenting with elements both good (his casting) and bad (the incredibly tacky wedding finale), yet there are clear signs of a growing maturity and mastery behind the lens. As occasionally weak works in progress, both Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion end up being minor works in Tyler Perry's overall oeuvre. However, they do stand as a starting point to his kind of creative comedic evangelism. Argue with their proficiency and professionalism, but Tyler Perry knows how to entertain folks. He eventually works the bugs out of his big-screen ventures, which is wonderful when you consider that his is a voice that deserves to be heard.
The first thing you have to remember about something like Madea's Family Reunion is that, all onscreen abundance aside, this was a film shot on a shoestring budget, and Lionsgate had no intention of remastering the movie for its Blu-ray release. That being said, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 image doesn't look half bad. The transfer treats the colors and skintones with respect and there are some very obvious details. In fact, you can see the pancake falseness of some of the star's makeup jobs throughout. Sadly, a solid picture doesn't undo some of Perry's more perplexing stylistic choices. The movie still feels like a hodgepodge, even if the 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is polished and professional.
Unlike recent hits such as the big screen adaptation of I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Perry is not obsessed with powerhouse musical numbers here. Therefore, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't have a lot to work with. The dialogue is always upfront and clear, and the ambient noises are expertly controlled. We keep waiting for the cast to drop the facade and tear the roof off with a rousing number or two, but all we get is slow jam jazz and accompanying slam poetry. Neither does much to drive the multi-channel choices.
As for extras, Perry is present for a wonderfully self-effacing commentary track. More than happy to point out places where he failed, as well as moments he finds just right, this alternate narrative is a thoroughly entertaining overview of the Family Reunion process. We also have the option of viewing several astute documentaries on the making of the movie. Focusing on the film itself (a standard EPK backstage glimpse), how the music was created, the history of the Gaither Plantation (where the family reunion was shot), and how the "heavenly" wedding was realized, these engaging overviews help us understand this director's motives. Dressed as Madea, Perry is here as a presenter and narrator. Often hilarious, these bits show the true Madea, not the one "toned down" for mainstream release. In addition, we have access to a few deleted scenes which, without their accompanying subplot context, really add very little to the overall film. Add in a set of trailers and you've got a decent, dense digital package, one arguing for Lionsgate's love of this multi-faceted artist and his works.
The hatred that comes Tyler Perry's way whenever he makes a media move is quite unsettling. When his films are popular, the gullibility of his audience is questioned. When his stage plays are unqualified hits, it's the demographic that's the determining factor. Some curse his Christian calling while others argue that he's nothing more than a cleaned-up urban comic, using God and The Bible as blinds for his otherwise standard race-based humor. Tyler Perry may not be everyone's evangelical cup of tea and his flawed fairy tales may be loaded with types both stereo and arche, but he has his finger on the pulse of a part of the entertainment audience that has felt underserved by the current cultural marketplace. Earning an easy Recommended rating, Madea's Family Reunion can't match the original theatrical version in laughs or liveliness, but as another step in the rise of Tyler Perry, it's an indelible, if incomplete, diversion.