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.
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.
The Audio: 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.
The Extras: 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.