If you awoke to a trail of rose petals leading from your bed to the bathroom, and you followed that trail to find that your fiance had hired a cellist, a violinist, and a freakin’ harpist to sit in the john and play relaxing music while a fourth, identically dressed young woman fanned you with a giant feather, would you allow said fiance to disrobe you in front of these strangers and then guide you into a relaxing tub of fragrant water? Or would you say to yourself, “Damn, I’m in some ridiculous dream sequence from some cheesy romantic movie!” and pinch yourself awake? That this scene opens Madea’s Family Reunion, and that it does not, in fact, turn out to be a dream sequence, tells you all you need to know about the film’s verisimilitude. It also tells you a lot about Tyler Perry, its writer/ director/executive producer/star. Cinematic realism is no concern for Perry; he’s after deeper truths about familial love, empowerment, and breaking the cycle of self-destructive behavior. Perry’s goals are laudable, but his means are crude — he combines broad comedy with hyped-up melodrama to create a hybrid that never quite jells. But whatever his esthetic demerits, Perry is a genuine American phenomenon — his stage shows have been playing to large, enthusiastic audiences for years, and his previous film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, made $50 million by drawing his enormous fan base — mostly African-American, Christian, and ignored by Hollywood — to the theater in unanticipated numbers. Perry’s audience responds to the way he combines messages of Christian love and self-improvement with the bawdy, often violent antics of his signature character, Madea and, if nothing else, his own success, rising from a life of poverty and childhood abuse to immense wealth and enormous popularity, serves as an example that anyone, regardless of background, may achieve his wildest dreams. That Perry has been able to do so without acquiring some of the basic skills of dramaturgy only makes his success more remarkable.
Family Reunion isn’t a sequel precisely; all of the Diary characters played by Perry — Madea, Joe, and Brian — are back, along with Cicely Tyson as Madea’s mother Myrtle Jean, and Judge Mablean Ephriam in a cameo, but most of Diary’s cast is missing. Brian tells Madea that his wife Debrah is doing well and has been off drugs for 15 months, but we never see her, and there’s not even a hint of what’s going on with Helen and Orlando, the central couple from Diary. The film also has little to do with Perry’s play of the same title; they share a few characters and situations, but the script for this Family Reunion is almost entirely new.
Having earned the clout to direct his own material this time, Perry shows a stronger feel for it than Darren Grant did in the previous film. In both structure and tone, Family Reunion is unquestionably an improvement over Diary; it’s more focused and cohesive; its style is at least consistent within scenes, if not always among them. It’s still somewhat disjointed — from sequence to sequence, it can feel like we’re flipping channels between “The Young and the Restless” and Big Momma’s House — but it doesn’t have the all-over-the-placeness of Diary, which went from melodrama to fairy tale to slapstick comedy to religious parable. In Family Reunion, rather than trying to achieve equilibrium among his signature blend of clashing elements, Perry has shifted the balance in favor of melodrama, getting less heavy-handed with the Christian message, focusing more on general themes of self-esteem and self-improvement, and almost eliminating his title character.
Yep, that’s right: Though she’s its major draw, Madea actually appears in less than a quarter of the movie, and when she is onscreen she seems a shadow of her former self. She tones down her antics — her gun remains holstered throughout — and becomes the voice of reason. (When she’s not savagely beating someone, that is.) Her subplot, in which she’s ordered by Judge Ephriam to take in a young girl named Nikki (Keke Palmer) as her foster daughter and must teach her to believe in her own abilities and stand up to bullies, places a distant third behind the stories of two women who may be her nieces or cousins or step-granddaughters or something (once again, Perry is vague about the exact familial relationship).
Those women are Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), two attractive, intelligent young ladies with major relationship problems. Outwardly, Lisa seems to have the man issue all sewn up: She’s engaged to Carlos Armstrong (Blair Underwood), one of Atlanta’s most eligible bachelors, who’s the kind of guy who hires a string trio to play for his sweetie while she lathers up her tatas. Unfortunately he’s also the kind of guy who slaps her across the face for any petty annoyance and threatens to throw her off his 30th-floor balcony if she ever tries to leave him. Vanessa’s problems are less dramatic but still vexing: Having dated a string of losers who treated her like dirt and left her with two kids to raise on her own, she’s been so often hurt and disappointed that she now distrusts all men. When she meets Frankie Henderson (Boris Kodjoe), who is a bus driver by day, a painter by night, and handsome, kind, and Christian all the time, she fears he’s too good to be for real (and I fear she’s right — Perry makes Frankie so terribly worthy of Vanessa’s trust that he seems inhumanly perfect). Helping neither of the sisters is their mother, Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), a spiteful, money-obsessed bitch who openly despises Vanessa because her father was a bad husband (Lisa had a different father) and thinks that the solution to domestic violence is for the woman to learn not to piss off her man. Victoria can’t wait to get her hands on Carlos’ money, and if her daughter has to weather a black eye now and then, hey, that’s the price you pay for comfort, right?
Arrindell Anderson is an appealing actress; she’s got a great voice and projects intelligence and strength, but Aytes comes off as rather dull (she has the same underwritten blankness that Kimberly Elise’s Helen had in Diary). There’s nothing dull about Lynn Whitfield, though: Her Victoria is one of the most selfish, scheming, manipulative, ill-mannered, and downright nasty characters I’ve ever run across — she’s not just looking out for her own best interests; she genuinely seems to delight in being evil. And Underwood, whose talent and charm are such that he deserves much better, is stuck in the even more thankless role of the abusive, controlling, possibly homicidal fiance. It’s a mystery why Perry, who works so hard to remind us that people can be redeemed from drug addiction, prostitution, and a host of other troubles through the grace of God, doesn’t offer us any understanding of why Carlos is abusive (he seems to have some major abandonment issues — why?) or any hint that his soul might be salvaged. And why are Perry’s wealthy male characters are always abusive to women and his working-class male characters always strong, patient, Christian men? What’s up with that?
Regardless of their relative charms, the actors are all forced to deliver terrible lines and directed to take them ridiculously over the top. The romance between Vanessa and Frankie has some sweet moments, but their dialogue bears little resemblance to conversations carried on by actual humans:
Frankie: “Is that what you thought I wanted from you — sex?”
Vanessa: “Let’s be honest: All men come for something.”
Frankie: “Some men come to restore.”
And some talk like Hallmark cards. As a director, Perry’s no more inventive than he is as a writer. He relies heavily on musical montages to convey plot developments (which at least spares us his dialogue), and his set-ups, from the opening aerial shots of Atlanta to the tired back-and-forth of the dialogue scenes, are uninspired. It’s in the editing that he really distinguishes himself, though — it makes absolutely no sense. Many scenes end with fade-outs that either abruptly interrupt the action or come a few beats after it has ended, and two necessary scenes are simply skipped: It only feels odd when Nikki pops up out of the blue to announce that she’s improved her grades when we never saw her doing the work that led to it (in fact, by that point she had disappeared from the movie for so long that I had forgotten the character existed), but it’s really egregious when Lisa, who has left Carlos and moved in with Madea, suddenly returns to him without any scene establishing that she had made that choice or what could have possibly persuaded her — did she simply return at the behest of her cruel, vicious mother, who, in trying to persuade Lisa to give Carlos another chance, winds up revealing that she had been a party to one of the sickest, most horrible crimes imaginable? Really, though, this is in keeping with the rest of the film — the characters’ behavior is at no point guided by logic. Before she finally flees to Madea’s house, Lisa tries repeatedly to slip out of Carlos’ apartment while he’s asleep — even dressing in the same room, right at the foot of the bed, so that, of course, she wakes him — when she could easily pack her things and move out during the day while he’s away at work.
Whatever her faults, at least Madea has some common sense. I liked the character better this time around — Perry’s toning-down of her eccentricities came as something of a relief, and she even made me laugh a few times. There’s little doubt that Madea’s fans will turn out for the movie, but I suspect many will be disappointed by her near-absence. The audience that I saw the movie with reacted uproariously whenever she was onscreen, particularly when she would grab whatever object was nearest to hand and begin whaling on someone, but during the soap-opera scenes that same audience chatted amongst themselves or laughed at the overwrought sentiment. Is Madea downplayed because Perry was busy directing the film or because, as he’s implied in interviews, he’s tired of playing the character? Whatever the reason, she winds up as a fifth wheel to the sisters and their men and just one more observer at the film’s come-to-Jesus moment, a trite but still affecting speech that Cicely Tyson delivers at the family reunion. Her oration has little to do with the film’s several plotlines, but it does make legitimate points about the acceptance of family and about honoring one’s forebears and oneself by living a life of self-respect. Moral uplift, wacky slapstick, turgid melodrama — as always, Perry includes something for everyone, but Madea’s Family Reunion is such a grab bag that there’s something to annoy everyone as well.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Madea's Family Reunion / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()