Tyler Perry took my advice.
When I reviewed Tyler Perry's feature film debut, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman", I lamented Perry's decision to not direct the film himself. Based upon Perry's unique theatrical play of the same name, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" was a woefully inadequate, histrionic and forced film that never quite achieved Perry's balance between laughs and authentic moral lessons.
Despite my rather scathing C-, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" was, indeed, financially successful and has afforded Perry the chance to try again with yet another original stage production, "Madea's Family Reunion". Many of Diary's problems remain present in Family Reunion, but this time around Perry didn't trust his vision to someone else and the film is a considerable improvement in just about every way over Perry's first.
In "Madea's Family Reunion," we again meet Madea dealing with family issues in her unique funny yet tender way. As Madea, Perry again has that "Big Momma" look as he assumes the role of Madea and also plays two other family members.
Perry's stage productions have been popular for years in the African-American community. They've toured for years around the country, mostly in mid-size auditoriums. The themes are universal, and nearly always along the same lines. Essentially, Perry writes morality lessons about God, family and self-empowerment. "Madea's Family Reunion" is no different.
The film starts off by introducing us to Victoria (Rochelle Aytes), a young, attractive African-American female engaged to be married to a wealthy, attractive man (Blair Underwood) who, unbeknownst to anyone, is beating her on a nearly daily basis.
Sounds like the makings of a tragedy, eh? Not quite. This is a Tyler Perry script, and Perry has this unique way of balancing the mundane, the insane and the profane like very few writers. It is precisely this balance that was lacking from Perry's first film, and it is this balance that exists much more of the time during "Madea's Family Reunion" that makes this film so much more impactful and entertaining.
Along with the couple mentioned above, we have the rest of Madea's regulars, a new child the court has ordered to foster parent and Victoria's sister Lisa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) who, in trying to bounce back from bad choices early in life, has turned her life over to God, become celibate and his focusing on raising her two children when she meets a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe) who isn't scared away when he finds out she's a single parent.
Throw in a money-hungry mom (Lynn Whitfield) and various other family members gathering for a family reunion (including Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou) and you have a film with a lot of laughs, a lot of love and moments of utter devastation.
Tyler Perry is really a director of moments. It is both a strength and a weakness in his films. Perry captures little moments beautifully...looks, gestures, single words and even silence in a way that makes literally everything on screen mean something. Likewise, though, too often Perry's moments continue to become a little too preachy and, at times, even self-serving. I don't mind morality lessons, but I prefer to learn the lessons myself. I don't want or need characters telling me what lessons I am supposed to be learning.
In the moments he creates, however, Perry creates a vision of life as it really is and he isn't afraid to say it's awful screwed up. As the family's eldest member, a 96-year-old aunt, arrives at the family reunion we see a few family members fighting over a game of craps, a few other young ladies barely dressed and dancing provocatively and generally a family that is divided into clicks. It is a powerful, sadly accurate, statement of how many families really work. Perry addresses it head on in a marvelous scene with Cicely Tyson that, unfortunately, becomes a tad preachy and diluted.
"Madea's Family Reunion" is ultimately a very simple film. Clearly targeted at the African-American community, it remains a valuable film for the community at large. It was hard, however, to not notice distinct cultural differences as I watched the film in a sold out auditorium filled with, easily, a 98% African-American audience. On more than one occasion, I found myself in tears only to realize the audience around me was laughing. To be honest, I still don't understand.
The performances are strong across the board, including a disturbingly effective performance from Blair Underwood, a chilling performance by Lynn Whitfield and the usual strong performance from Boris Kodjoe. Perry seems different here than he did in "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and I found myself having an easier time letting go of the obvious masculinity of his character. It is hard not to chuckle at the fact that both of Perry's films have been released shortly after "Big Momma's House" films. It seems like odd timing, but this film is considerably stronger than Lawrence's in "Big Momma's House 2."
The script is generally strong, however, it does border often on being histrionic and again I'd have to say that too often Perry has a hard time getting his ego out of the way and just letting the story happen. A strong score aids the mood of the film, along with a nearly perfect soundtrack. Perry, in fact, also scored much of the film and wrote several of the songs performed by others.
The inevitable curse of a simple film is that the ending itself is quite predictable. Additionally, while I admire Perry's addressing of domestic violence issues it was, at times, played a bit too much for laughs and, ultimately, the implication that revenge equals empowerment is a bit reckless and could, quite easily, endanger a woman in a real life situation.
Yet, I can't deny it. The spirit of Tyler Perry's script and his dedication to preaching peace, love and understanding won me over much of the time during "Madea's Family Reunion." Unlike "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," I found this film to be well-paced with a solid, controlled performance by Perry. While I didn't always appreciate how Perry resolved issues, I love a film that teaches its audience to end domestic violence, be there for one another, believe in oneself and to not stop believing in love.
"Madea's Family Reunion" is simple yet effective, funny yet meaningful. Judging by the three sold-out performances at the theatre I attended, it looks like we may well be moving toward yet another Tyler Perry project in the future. Here's hoping he continues maturing as a director, growing as an actor and so authentically tapping into the African-American culture.
One moderate disclaimer must be noted quite strongly...those who have experienced domestic violence may find some of the scenes in this film particularly disturbing. If you do, in fact, attend "Madea's Family Reunion" I suggest you not do so alone.
This disclaimer aside, "Madea's Family Reunion" comes closer to manifesting the stage magic of Perry's shows on the big screen. Frequently funny, often insightful and occasionally painfully, "Madea's Family Reunion" is one family reunion worth attending.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Criticy.