After much procrastination, I have finally completed the holy Tyler Perry quartet. Unlike many, I went about it in reverse fashion, beginning with the franchise guest spot (his bit part in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) followed by an attempt at a (non-drag) franchise of his own (the ill-conceived carrying of Morgan Freeman’s torch in Alex Cross). After that, I at last saw something in which Perry had an actual creative hand without appearing onscreen (this year’s relentlessly preachy writing/directing effort Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor), yet his most popular creation remained elusive. Now I’ve at last witnessed the beloved ‘tude of Madea in her latest cross-dressing senior citizen adventure, A Madea Christmas. As was the case with the similarly popular and sequel-friendly Saw, I honestly understand and respect why Madea is so well-received, but enough tangential issues come with the core perk that I have little desire to see more of her films.
First and foremost, Madea (Perry) herself is amusing. From her opening scene of seasonal work at a fancy Atlanta department store, her stream-of-consciousness comments are frequently funny, as is the overall comedic image of the 6’5″ Perry in women’s clothing. Fun as a film comprised solely of verbal Madea smackdowns may be, Perry feels the need to introduce an actual story (for shame!) and the freewheeling good times quickly go downhill from there.
Incapable of handling simple requests from innocent customers, Madea’s employment quickly ends (in grand rude fashion) and she finds herself headed down to Alabama with her bossy niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) for a surprise holiday drop-in on Eileen’s daughter Lacey (Tika Sumpter). With Caucasian-wary Eileen unwilling to accept a Christmas without her daughter and Lacey not ready to reveal her elopement to white husband Conner (Eric Lively), who she claims is a mere farmhand, it’s a believable modern dynamic and one that becomes more interesting when Conner’s parents pay a visit. Played by Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy, their country humor is hit or miss but a welcome relief from the film’s poorly-presented serious-minded conflict.
Due to budget cuts and a general town depression from an upriver dam, Lacey’s school is low on dough yet secures a mystery sponsor thanks to her high school ex-boyfriend Oliver (JR Lemon). Why no one takes a microsecond to look into this source is mind-numbing, especially when it’s later revealed that actually reading the contract would have revealed as much, and naturally major problems arise. Here, Perry goes into full soapbox mode as the sponsor (who *gasp* is also responsible for the dam construction) demands no religious mention in the town’s Christmas festival they’ve funded and A Madea Christmas becomes a “keep Christ in Christmas” picture. Not that there’s anything wrong with this thesis, but the blunt angry pleas made by the townfolk in favor of this point are so hamfisted that even those in agreement with the stance are likely to roll their eyes. The artlessness of this presentation, and Perry’s overall direction, is so amateur it’s a wonder Keenan Ivory Wayans doesn’t pop up and yell “Message!” like in Don’t Be A Menace. (On a related note, a parody of Perry movies could be a fine comeback vehicle for the Wayans.)
Thankfully Madea is there to keep things from getting overly saccharine. Moments like her “hip-hop” telling of the Christmas story to Lacey’s class is great and her rapport with Conner’s dad elicits the occasional chestnut, but when she isn’t doling out sass the results aren’t as wonderful. With Madea also fond of bluntly delivering lessons, Perry proves consistently subtlety-free in his conveyance of values and loses all but his die-hard flock in the process (though, as noted, unless accustomed to his style to the point of blanket acceptance, they too may flee this bumbling approach). Without Madea, there’d be no point in such an exercise, and even with her it’s only so enjoyable.
Rated PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor and language.
Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.