17 March 2015 | StevePulaski
Complicated and cluttered for a film, but such is life
Madea's Big Happy Family is one the best Madea film I've seen so far, as most of them tend to be nothing more than noise and a lot of different genres and themes meshed together in one grand, tonal inconsistency. It's not that Big Happy Family is much different from this formula, but it's definitely more spirited and quick-witted than a great deal of its predecessors and successors. Rather than focusing on sight gags and tired racial humor, this particular outing showcases Tyler Perry like a variety show performer, breathlessly running between characters and delivering a fast-talking performance out of each one. Just when you think Perry's liable to run out of gas in the third act, he turns it around and continuously cranks out a tireless bout of one-liners and meaningful monologues through the most unlikely character in the entire film - the titular one.
More on that later; the film opens with Shirley (Loretta Devine) visiting a doctor with one of Perry's signature character, Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), to discover that her cancer has reoccurred in a more aggressive state. In response, she request Aunt Bam gather all of her children and their significant others together for what could very well be the last get together they ever have. Shirley's children, Byron (Bow Wow), Tammy (Natalie Desselle), and Kimberly (Shannon Kane), all arrive promptly. Byron is in a loose relationship with another woman, struggling to maintain the intimacy, take care of his son, escape the drug-dealing scene, and manage his destructive baby mamma (Teyana Taylor). Tammy and her husband Harold (Rodney Perry) are also fighting constantly, never coming to an agreement on anything and experiencing rough patches in their marriage when it seems like only yesterday they loved each other unconditionally. Then there's Kimberly, who, amidst arguing with Tammy constantly, has a secret for Bryon that nobody is expecting, which is quietly held until it comes out at an inappropriate time.
Punctuating all this oppressive, soap-opera drama is none other than Tyler Perry in drag, playing his famous Madea character along with her brother Joe. Madea is the matriarch of the family, holding the fort and desperately trying to keep everyone stable, even if she frequently snaps, pulls out her pistol, gets physical, or simply has to knock some sense into her family. Much to my surprise here, Madea is more about her verbal banter here than her psychotic rampages or emotional hissyfits. Sure, the occasional one slips out unexpectedly, particularly in an early scene in a drive-thru which is too outlandish to take seriously amidst the more serious drama, but overall, it's remarkable how pleasantly light-hearted Madea can be and how incredibly serious she can be in this film as well.
Consider the scene when Madea knocks some sense into Tammy and Harold, as their marriage has been souring for quite sometime now and neither know how to handle it. In a roughly two minute monologue, where no humorous or sentimental punches are pulled, Madea talks about couples struggle the most when they hit their forties for a number of reasons that are painstakingly honest: both couples generally begin to see their parents' age, and even die, financial stress has the ability to take its toll, he's going through a midlife crisis, she's going through menopause, a sex life is hard to maintain in a tumultuous society, and so on. This kind of brutal honesty and realism is something I've humbly come not to expect in a Tyler Perry film; I generally expect to see silliness on display and the occasional reality of a bad situation portrayed in a modest light. Madea's Big Happy Family isn't really different on that level, as it still cherrypicks a great deal of issues that often plague the black community (drug-dealing to get by, the struggles to be a father to children born out of wedlock, etc) and oversimplifies them, but, every now and then, the film stumbles upon a hint of genius that shows maybe if Perry would stop clowning around, he'd be able to extract some true, heartwrenching meaning and insight from his characters and situations, even his band of comic characters.
As expected, Perry creates a conglomerate of genres with this film, merging slapstick comedy, family drama, marital debacles, and gospel all together into a film that, especially towards the end, find itself almost crumbling under the weight of all these genres. This narrative hodgepodge is enough to make one forget all of Perry's accomplishments thus far within the film, from the brutal realism of a tough marital situation and creating one of his most unpredictable characters into a rare laugh riot. The last twenty minutes of this film, which manage to squeeze in a strange choir rendition and an agonizingly unfunny Maury skit, seem like they're coming from an entirely different writer who was only given a vague paraphrasing of the prior events of the film.
Give Perry credit not only for the difficult aforementioned accomplishments but the fact that he managed to at least make an attempt to humanize the bulk of the characters he introduces throughout the film. Another one of Perry's unsung talents is that while he includes a great deal of characters in his films, he manages to allow them room to run and space to play in so no character is left without some kind of personality. Madea's Big Happy Family is a great deal of fun at times and a dreary slog at others, making it a fairly accurate depiction of life in the eye of someone who is "this close" to fully portraying everything in a believable and balanced manner.
Starring: Tyler Perry, Loretta Devine, Bow Wow, Natalie Desselle, Shannon Kane, David Mann, Cassi Davis, Tamela Mann, Lauren London, Isaiah Mustafa, Rodney Perry, Rodney Perry, and Teyana Taylor. Directed by: Tyler Perry.