Tyler Perry movies have always been about contrasting extremes, careening between saints and sinners, high drama and low humor, the gospel and the gutter. The latest entry in the brand, "Madea's Big Happy Family," maintains the template and then some, marking a return to safety after the mixed response that greeted Perry's last movie, an ambitious adaptation of the famous Ntozake Shange play "For Colored Girls."
Perry possesses a superb ear for the themes and emotions that connect him to his core audience, and that's on display again here, though the unconverted might grumble that the movie's many riffs and rants feel recycled from previous offerings. Whether a verbal takedown and a slap upside the head from Madea can ever grow old probably depends on if you consider the sight of the linebacker-sized Perry in drag inherently funny in the first place.
Here, Perry's take-no-prisoners Madea is charged with smacking sense into the heads of her niece's bickering children. The clock is ticking because the niece in question, the devout Shirley (Loretta Devine), has terminal cancer. All she wants is to gather her family around her for one last supper before she goes home to be with her Lord.
Madea's round-up assistance is needed because family dinners with this bunch tend to end before the food hits the table. Uptight Kimberly (Shannon Kane) is openly hostile to anyone with a pulse, especially her "ghetto" relations. Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) saves most of her wrath for her long-suffering husband (Rodney Perry), completely ignoring her two bratty boys in the process. And reformed drug dealer Byron (Shad "Bow Wow" Moss) desperately wants to stay clean but is being constantly badgered for money by an annoying baby mama (Teyana Taylor) and his high-maintenance girlfriend (Lauren London).
Notice a pattern here? Perry's characters have always been broad, but the women here take shrillness to a level that would make Snooki shrink like a violet. Other old standby Perryisms turn up too — corrosive family secrets, harangues from elders about kids' lack of respect these days (though, really, enough about "pants on the ground"), lectures and life lessons and Madea threatening to "beat the hell out of people."
That there is little difference in tone between the end credits gag reel and the previous 100 minutes represents a triumph of consistency that Burt Reynolds, even in his heyday, never achieved.