The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family
Madea may open up a can of whoop-ass if she doesn't like my review of her Big Happy Family.

Let me begin this review by saying that I have a ton of respect for Tyler Perry. I know it's hip to knock him in some quarters (especially those involving film critics) but I think that what he's accomplished should be an inspiration to aspiring writers/directors everywhere. Talk about an independent filmmaker! Here's a guy who makes exactly the movies he wants to make, on his own terms and without a shred of studio interference. His audience is devoted to him. Perry's autonomy allows him to crank out two movies per year, and while that's admirable, it's also a difficult pace to maintain. Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, while amusing in spots, really shows the strain of this pace.

Loretta Devine plays Shirley, niece of no-nonsense granny Madea (Perry). In the opening scene, her doctor tells her that she has terminal cancer, with only four to six weeks left to live. Knowing she has to break the news to her children, Shirley tries on multiple occasions to invite them all to dinner. Animosity is rampant between them, though, and that makes it difficult to get everyone to sit still long enough to hear the news. Daughter Tammy (Natalie Desselle) has two disrespectful sons she feels overwhelmed by and a hen-pecked husband who can never please her. Other daughter Kimberly (Shannon Kane) has an anger problem that is negatively impacting her marriage to nice guy Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa, a.k.a. The Old Spice Guy). Son Byron (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss) is torn between his current girlfriend and his baby mama, both of whom want him to return to pushing drugs in order to make money. Unable to get any of them to cooperate, Shirley enlists Madea to administer some tough love. Eventually they do all come together, secrets are revealed, and – this being a Tyler Perry movie – the power of the Lord sets each of them on the right course.

As I seem to say every time I review one of his movies, a Tyler Perry project always mixes broad comedy, melodrama, and a religious message. All three are accounted for in Madea's Big Happy Family. Scenes involving the loose cannon Madea earn solid laughs, most notably in a sequence during which she literally slaps some sense into Tammy's eldest son. (Yes, it's a questionable moment, but the broadness with which it's played generally offsets any offensiveness.) I've always been okay with the melodrama too. While undeniably corny at times, Perry knows how to stack the deck and make me feel something, even when my brain tells me to resist. For instance, he gives Byron's baby mama the annoying habit of dragging out his name when she speaks it; even though she's just a stereotypical money-grubber, the character grated on me for this trait, and that made me eager for Byron to toss her from his life once and for all. As for the ever-present religious message, well, I like that too. So few movies even dare to touch the issue of faith that it's refreshing when one does.

Obviously, a lot about Madea's Big Happy Family is in line with every other Tyler Perry project. I've liked most of his previous films, but this one didn't quite connect with me to the same degree. I think that's because you'd have a hard time finding a single scene that doesn't run on too long. Right from the opening moments, you get the sense of what a scene is trying to convey, but then it just keeps going and going. There is a distinct lack of focus to the screenplay this time. Perry has always been one to beat you over the head with an idea, yet his previous scripts have been tighter than this – at least in the sense of being able to take us swiftly from one plot point to the next. I found myself growing tired of the long speeches and belabored interactions between the characters. Quite a few moments were obviously accomplished by allowing the actors to improvise. That can be an effective technique, if the director knows when to cut. Perry lets it all run wild. A good screenplay takes time to perfect. The tone has to be just right, as does the pacing. In this case, cranking out two movies a year seems to have caused Perry to write a more bare-bones script, then incorrectly assume that the improvs would fill it out.

Another disconcerting thing was the movie's treatment of women. Perry has been knocked for this before, but it really stood out for me here. With the exception of Shirley, the female characters are either harpies or gold-diggers (or both). Tammy and Kimberly both nag the hell out of their super-nice, sympathetic husbands. The two women involved with Byron are looking for money – one wants more child support, the other wants to be “kept” - and both encourage him to stop taking the moral high road and go back to slinging drugs. Madea, of course, is quick with a temper and prone to outbursts of violence. There is a bit late in the film in which Madea encourages one male character to put his wife in her place. The scene, which involves him verbally dominating her, is played for laughs; we're supposed to cheer that he “acts like a man” and refuses to take any more guff from a woman. (Surprisingly, most of the women in my theater were laughing and applauding.) It seems to me that Perry could have flip-flopped things by having at least one male character be something other than noble and letting one female character escape complete shrew-dom.

Madea's Big Happy Family is well-acted, it has a very cool animated opening credit sequence, and the story's faith-based message is admirable. I laughed on occasion, as I have with all the Madea flicks. What it needed was another pass through Tyler Perry's word processor to give it more focus. Maybe Perry has become so successful that he thinks he can go on autopilot with his audience. Hopefully that isn't the case. I believe we've only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he can do. He needs to keep pushing forward. This movie is a slight step backwards.

( 1/2 out of four)

Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family is rated PG-13 for drug content, language and some mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.