When “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” came out of nowhere last year and earned a $50 million return on its $5 million budget, Hollywood executives immediately asked: Has Tyler Perry written any other stage plays that we can turn into crappy, moralizing films that preach and talk down to the underserved African-American audience? Lucky for them, the answer was YES!
So here is “Madea’s Family Reunion,” a sequel to “Diary” with most of the same cast, a lot of the same characters, and all of Perry’s earnest but unsubtle attempts at entertainment and inspiration. He directed the movie himself this time, thus bringing his uniquely bad vision of family drama to the screen unfiltered. It’s not a pretty sight.
Perry returns (in drag) as Madea Simmons, a giant no-nonsense grandmother who governs her Atlanta family with equal parts wisdom, insults and beatings. Her brand of broad, unlikely humor — “I shot Tupac!” she declares during one of her don’t-mess-with-me rants — is funnier and less embarrassing than I remember it being in “Diary,” but it still seems only a few steps ahead of Amos & Andy. Why African-American audiences like the character anyway is a puzzle for the sociologists to solve, though, not me.
Madea becomes a foster mother to Nikki (Keke Palmer), a belligerent girl in her early teens who is desperately in need of Madea’s tough love and matriarchal encouragement. When Madea learns that the kids on Nikki’s school bus pick on her, she marches onto the bus, delivers a stern warning, and then slaps a boy upside the head for talking back to her. This is played for laughs.
Later, Madea learns that Nikki has skipped school and takes a belt to her backside. This, too, is done in an exaggerated way meant to be funny. But what’s playing on the TV in the background while Madea whips Nikki is a drama about an abusive mother who burns her daughter with an iron. Why is one funny while the other isn’t?
Hitting children on school buses and flogging foster children with belts may be the very height of hilarity, but Perry is clear on another point: A man beating his fiancee is NOT FUNNY. The bulk of the film is devoted to this plot, in which Madea’s grandniece Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) is engaged to a wealthy investment banker named Carlos (Blair Underwood) who slaps her around regularly. Lisa’s mother, a “Dynasty”-style social climber named Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), tells her, “Be a good wife and do what the man says.” She is not going to let this lucrative marriage be prevented just because the man is beating her daughter!
All of the characters in a Tyler Perry script are flat, but the villains are especially one-dimensional. Shades of gray would just get in the way of the easy sermonizing, you see. When someone tells Victoria, “You are so wicked! You’re gonna rot in hell,” the vixen’s cold response is, “I vacation there.” (Meow!) Later, Carlos tells a cowering Lisa, “If you’re thinking about leaving me, I’ll love you to death — and I mean that.” That kind of dialogue, not to mention Victoria and Carlos’ elaborate back-room scheming, belongs in a soap opera, not in a movie.
Surely this kind of simple-mindedness is an insult to people who face these problems in real life. Carlos is made to seem so unilaterally evil — he “apologizes” briefly, but the scene ends with him trying to throw Lisa off a building — that Lisa’s slowness to leave him appears downright stupid. In real life, things are more complex, and the abused woman’s reluctance to leave her man, while unwise, often has mitigating factors that make it understandable.
The other main story involves Lisa’s sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), a single mother of two who is dating a near-perfect single father named Frank (Boris Kodjoe). She has a hard time opening up, for reasons eventually disclosed in another of the film’s outrageously melodramatic soap opera moments, and doesn’t want to be intimate with Frank until they are married. This leads to what you might call a montage of celibacy, where a smooth R&B song plays over several brief clips of Frank and Vanessa refraining from sex. If you think it sounds dull to show people NOT doing something, you have a good point.
Just as “Diary” did, “Family Reunion” awkwardly mixes slapstick humor with weepy melodrama, the reality-based (though unrealistically presented) crises of Lisa and Vanessa butting up against the flatulence comedy of Madea’s irascible brother Uncle Joe (also played by Perry). But most of the movie is devoted to the didactic melodrama and speechifying — look, it’s Cicely Tyson, here just in time to deliver the film’s 1,000th monologue! — rather than comedy anyway.
How influential has this franchise become in the black community? Maya Angelou, the highly esteemed African-American poet and writer, appears in a few scenes. I fully expect the next sequel will feature Toni Morrison and Desmond Tutu. In the meantime, “Madea’s Family Reunion” is better than its predecessor, but only in the same way that the bomb on Nagasaki was better than the one on Hiroshima.
D+ (1 hr., 47 min.; )