Watching the menacing matriarchal figure of Madea as she convinces quarreling relatives to show up for a family function reminded me of those military boot camp chronicles such as "Full Metal Jacket," "Heartbreak Ridge," and "Sands of Iwo Jima," where the drill sergeant whips the recruits into shape. When Madea isn't harassing her relatives, she winds up sitting around the dinner table with them. Indeed, Tyler Perry's fifth foray as Madea looks like the versatile, Atlanta-based auteur may have watched the classic 1997 African-American opus "Soul Food." "Madea's Big Happy Family" features more soul than food. Madea is summoned to assemble a shattered family so its own matriarch can warn her children about her impending peril. Not-surprisingly, Perry parades the usual stereotypical characters across the screen; piles on pop cultural psychobabble blended with religious fervor, and then pays off suspenseful situations with predictable goodwill in his adaptation of his own stage play, minus most of the musical interludes. Mind you, the details don't really matter because Perry is hilarious again not only as Madea but also as Joe. No, he doesn't reprise his role as sensible, straight-faced, buttoned-down attorney Brian that he made in both "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea Goes to Jail." Nevertheless, Madea makes this tolerable drama about family secrets an above-average opus. No, it lacks the polish of "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and doesn't pay off at the end as well as "Madea Goes to Jail."
"Madea's Big Happy Family" is anything but happy. Madea's favorite niece, Shirley (Loretta Devine of "Waiting to Exhale"), has learned from her doctor that her cancer is no longer quiescent. She decides to summon her family and deliver the dire news. Battling cancer, Shirley discovers with chagrin, is a picnic compared with battling one's own family. Shirley's two grown-up daughters, upscale real estate broker Kimberly (Shannon Kane of "Brooklyn's Finest") and middle-class garage co-owner Tammy (Natalie Desselle of "Set It Off"), despise each other with a passion. They cannot stay under the same roof long enough for Shirley to tell them about her dreadful condition. Things fare no better for Kim and Tammy in their own homes where they display no respect to their respective spouses who they accuse of 'disrespecting' them. Kim's husband Calvin (Isaiah Mustafa of "The Island") cannot believe how arrogantly his wife treats her long-suffering mother. Tammy's henpecked mechanic husband Harold (Rodney Perry of "Johnson Family Vacation") is constantly in the dog house with her and cannot discipline his own sons because of her. Meanwhile, Shirley's adult son Byron (Shad 'Bow Wow' Moss of "Lottery Ticket") finds himself torn between his baby's momma, Sabrina (Teyana Taylor of "Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming"), and his latest high-maintenance girlfriend Renee (Lauren London of "ATL") as both demand that he indulge their every whim. You see, Byron is fresh out of prison for selling narcotics and has to furnish child support to his ghetto queen mother. As the same time, Byron's new girlfriend wants him to start dealing dope again since they need a higher income.
After everybody storms out of Shirley's house, she calls on Madea to shepherd them back for some more table talk before it is too late. Since Madea values Shirley as her 'favorite' niece, she cruises off in her Cadillac to round them up. Along the way, Shirley's family endures some shocking discoveries. Before everything is said and done, Kim and Tammy at each other's throats, literally tearing apart with devastating results on Byron. Literally, Byron is left reeling when he learns that Kim was his mom after a relative raped her. Naturally, Byron isn't the only victim. Once "Madea's Big Happy Family" establishes Shirley's grim prospects for a short-lived future, the storyline shifts to Madea. Our heroine's first scene at a fast-food restaurant is terrific. Madea arrives too late for breakfast and an obnoxious female manager fuels her rage. What Madea doesn't know is that Sabrina manages the joint. When Madea cannot buy breakfast at the drive thru window, she smashes her massive Cadillac into the lobby, vaults the counter and gets everything that she wants. This is by far the most outrageous scene and proves once again that when Madea is on screen, neither Perry nor she can do no wrong. Indeed, Madea shows no signs of mellowing. On the other hand, Joe isn't as insufferable. He gets a lot of mileage out of his proposed service: 1-800-Choke-A-Ho." Instead, Perry has forged a new character, white-haired Aunt Bam, who takes over the pot-smoking, trash-talking elements of Joe's feisty old character. Aunt Bam could qualify as a Madea wannabe, and she keeps the plot brewing when Madea exits off-screen.
Perry has done a couple of other things to make this "Madea" outing a little different from previous escapades. Madea breaks the law, but she doesn't suffer the consequences. Madea gets away with just about everything that she does. Aside from Madea/Joe and Aunt Bam, the only other cast member that may trigger guffaws or outrage is the unforgettable Teyana Taylor as Byron's whiny baby momma. Taylor gets more mileage out of whining the name Bryan than you could ever imagine. Of course, Loretta Devine registers believably and sympathetically as Shirley. The characters are tragic, like poor Shirley; comedic like Madea, Aunt Bam, Mr. Brown, and arrogant like Kim, Tammy, and her boys. Happily, Madea delivers some equally unforgettable dialogue as she enforces her stern will on her erring relatives. Aside from some depressing moments involving Shirley's cancer, "Madea's Big Happy Family" has more than enough hilarity to keep your ribs tickled for its 106 minutes. Like any good movie, this one packs more than a surprise or two.
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