Madea's Family Reunion

"Madea's Family Reunion," the follow-up to Tyler Perry's smash "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" has the flat, textureless look of a budget-cable telefilm, a script that over articulates its themes and lessons at every turn and direction by a first-timer with no concept of where the camera is supposed to go. It's cheap and looks like it was made in a frenzied weekend without time for second takes. For this, audiences will flock in droves, forking over their money willingly, because "Madea" is meant to be a communal experience. But a critic's job isn't to judge how a movie will play in an ideal viewing environment. It's to look at the movie. "Madea" is dismal.

The titular family reunion takes up only around 15 minutes of screentime, but the title isn't to be taken literally. It isn't about a big gala BBQ so much as the ability of Madea (Perry in bad makeup that made me yearn for the artistic flair of "Big Momma's House") to bring her own family back together. That family includes niece Lisa (Rochelle Atyes), who is engaged to an abusive, but dashing business man (Blair Underwood). It includes Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), Lisa's half-sister, who has given up on finding a man until she meets soulful bus driver Frankie (Boris Kodjoe). It includes Nikki (Keke Palmer), a rebellious runaway lucky enough to get Madea for a foster mother. It even includes flatulent Uncle Joe (Perry in a different bad makeup job) and Vanessa and Lisa's dragon lady of a mother (Lynn Whitfield). More than that, the reunion in question refers to general African-American unity, a point that goes under the radar until guest star Cicely Tyson delivers a lengthy speech on the subject.

I sat at a press roundtable where Tyler Perry admitted that he had made peace with the fact that many reviewers just don't understand his films. I understand the values he's trying to espouse and I applaud them. The messages of the film are all good ones, whether he's instructing black men to step up and be responsible for their families and their communities or telling black women to respect their abilities and not to let themselves be undermined or used.

I'm a bit more confused as to why Perry, behind the camera for the first time, doesn't know how to put his actors in the frame at the same time, why he prefers to just have characters talking to each other in back-and-forth close-ups. I don't know why he doesn't know how to move the camera or show the passage of time without a montage set to gospel music. I don't know why he couldn't tell that featuring Madea or Old Joe in tight shots just exposes the shoddy makeup. I don't understand why I'm supposed to keel over laughing at a long scene of an old guy farting or why it's supposed to be endearing that Old Joe is at his family reunion videotaping his young cousins in tight shorts. I understand why it's very bad that Carlos beats and intimidates Lisa to try to shape her into the perfect woman, but I don't understand why it's supposed to be hilarious (and instantly effective) when Madea beats and threatens Nikki into being a better child. Surely when back-to-back scenes show Carlos and Madea pounding on the young women they claim to love, that should require some degree of self-awareness, right? Right?

Perry's work with the actors is better than his grasp of the foreign medium. The movie's best scenes feature Underwood and Whitfield verbally sparring, two veteran actors obviously loving the chance to play villains. None of the actors are good enough, though, to explain how the traumatic emotional revelations that take place with 20 minutes to go are able to fade into a happy ending by the closing credits. It must be the deus ex grits climax.

I have no doubt that for many viewers, seeing "Madea" will be a life-affirming experience, a chance to get together in the theater with friends and family and just feel together. I feel bad about missing that, because for me it was just a bad movie, albeit better intentioned than most.

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