Madea’s Big Happy Family

Tyler Perry’s Madea character has been growing on me lately, to the point where I no longer dread the sassy old broad’s antics but actually kind of look forward to them. Part of the reason is that the character exists in her own sphere of reality, like a cartoon character surrounded by flesh-and-blood humans. Her rapid-fire dialogue runs the gamut from homespun wisdom to complete gibberish, making her an amusing curiosity if nothing else. Plus, she’s a grandmother who’s played by a 6-foot-5-inch, 42-year-old man in a wig and a dress. It is hard to go entirely wrong with that scenario, all of Martin Lawrence’s efforts notwithstanding.

The problem with the last couple movies to feature Madea, in fact, has been that they haven’t featured Madea enough. “Madea Goes to Jail” and “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” both relegated her to minor-character status; the latest, “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” does it too, once again focusing on simplistic melodrama. Many of the characters involved in these black-and-white lessons of good and evil are somehow even less believable as real people than Madea.

Except for Shirley, though. Played by Loretta Devine in what must be the best dramatic performance I’ve seen in a Tyler Perry film, Shirley is a sweet, weary woman whose faith in Jesus has gotten her through a rough life. She may now be at the end of that life; the cancer she has been fighting for several years has returned. Much of the film involves her efforts to get her adult children together long enough to break the news to them.

Shirley has two daughters, dumpy Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) and haughty Kimberly (Shannon Kane). They harp at each other, and at their henpecked husbands, Harold (Rodney Perry) and Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa, aka the Old Spice guy). The general rule in a Perry film is that men are either saintly or flat-out evil, while women are divided by age: older ladies are decent, younger ladies are hateful shrews. That is still his system. Shirley’s 18-year-old son, Byron (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss), is trying to stay out of trouble after a run-in with the law, but his life is complicated by two awful skanks, his current girlfriend, Renee (Lauren London), and his ex, Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), with whom he has a child.

Madea is somehow connected to this brood. She refers to Shirley as her “niece,” but I know from experience with this dynasty that that could also mean great-niece, and could also just be metaphorical. There’s another character called Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) who smokes marijuana constantly and makes obscene advances on Shirley’s doctor, and heaven knows whose aunt, if anyone’s, she actually is. At any rate, Madea mostly stays on the sidelines of the film, dealing with her daughter, Cora (Tamela J. Mann), who is concerned that her father, Brown (David Mann) — Madea’s ex-husband, I guess? — is having health problems of his own. When called upon, however, Madea helps Shirley get her affairs together, and dispenses some much-needed slaps in the face (literal and figurative) to Shirley’s children and grandchildren.

As always in the Perryverse, the conflicts are enhanced by people behaving unreasonably or implausibly — they are contrived, in other words, because Perry wanted a certain thing to happen but couldn’t come up with a good way for the story to get there. As a result, the emotional scenes don’t often work: they’re just too awkwardly set up and executed to resonate. The exception, as I noted, is Loretta Devine, who somehow finds truth beneath the mawkishness.

The comedy, on the other hand, while decidedly hit-or-miss, is worthy of a few smiles. I’m fascinated by the free-wheeling manner in which Perry puts it all together. One scene will have serious conversations about cancer, followed by gallows humor about cancer, followed by fat jokes aimed at Madea, followed by tears over someone’s fractured marriage, all in the space of a couple minutes. It’s not an elegant construction, and I suspect that when it works it’s by chance rather than by design. In any event, it does work sometimes.

C+ (1 hr., 46 min.; PG-13, some mild profanity, mature themes, some vulgarity.)