Dysfunctional family reunion

Posted: Mar 03, 2006 12:01 AM

Like many films that champion faith, family, and personal responsibility, Madea’s Family Reunion boasts some solid dialogue, hilarious interactions, and truly uplifting moments.

Too bad, like a lot of those same films, it hides its light under a bushel of undercooked characters and bad acting.

This is playwright Tyler Perry’s second shot at the big screen (his first was last year’s sleeper hit Diary of a Mad Black Woman), but this time around, his leading ladies are far more sad and fearful than angry.

Half-sisters Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) both suffer from the influence of a mother who could have served as the model for Cruella DeVille. Victoria (Lynne Whitfield) convinces Lisa to go through with her marriage to an abusive boyfriend, so that both she and her daughter can enjoy the benefit of his wealth. Victoria’s advice: “Stop doing whatever’s making him angry.”

But the pain she inflicts on her other child cuts even deeper. Negatively comparing Vanessa to her sister and belittling Vanessa’s romance with a talented, but poor, bus driver/artist are the least of the blows she deals to her eldest child. As details of Vanessa’s painful past come to light, Victoria moves from cartoony she-devil to criminally negligent monster. Were it not for the interference of aunt Madea, who is both literally and figuratively larger than life, neither young woman would stand a chance at lasting happiness. And interfere Madea does, with all the subtlety of a homemaking hippopotamus.

With the exception of the parts Perry plays, every member of the cast, including the men, could easily take top prize at a beauty pageant. Unfortunately, in an acting pageant, none would deserve even third runner-up, except, once again, for Perry himself who could certainly win some kind of best supporting award (though in which category, male or female, it’s hard to say).

The sisters convey their emotions with all the alternately wide-eyed/pained visages of a couple of freshman theater majors. As for the villains, their hissed threats, arched eyebrows and double entendres are so over-the-top they could make Days of Our Lives blush. Blair Underwood’s fiancée-beating investment banker strikes (pardon the pun) only one particularly tiresome note.

Yet, just as the film threatens to overwhelm us with corniness and predictability, in walks Mama Madea in all her politically-incorrect glory. Spanking children, praising Jesus, and admonishing her mixed-up nieces, she displays the kind of family graces so common to our culture, yet so rarely represented on film, audiences can’t help responding despite C-grade production values.

Perry’s predilection for being a “one man band” most likely accounts for his film’s deficits. He not only wrote, directed, produced, and scored it, he also plays three characters (Madea, Uncle Joe, and Nephew Brian). His comedic characterization of Madea, a woman equally outlandish and believable, rises to genius level, but on all other counts Perry is in dire need of some collaboration.

The direction feels flat and plodding, and the characters suffer from the kind of underdevelopment that can, for some reason, go unnoticed on the stage (where Reunion debuted) but is glaringly obvious on film. However, where Reunion fails most is in its lack of focus.

So many plots and sub-plots trip over each other—we jump from one niece’s abusive relationship, to the other’s inability to love, to Madea’s attempts to straighten out a wayward foster girl, to the impending family reunion—that none receives proper attention.

Vanessa’s story needs a film of its own, so it’s a major letdown when she delivers one of the most romantic, tender monologues in recent cinematic history that we don’t know more about her or the man who inspired it.

Similarly, when Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou make cameos to deliver sage advice to the gathered family (and, it appears, to the black community as a whole), their words sound a moving call away from arms. But it feels as though the script was written for the purpose of their speeches and not their speeches for the script.

It’s time for Tyler Perry to solicit some input from his film industry peers. Not so that they will undermine his fresh, funny and uniquely Christian vision that manages to touch audiences in spite of being presented in ungainly material, but so they will enhance it and provide it the setting it deserves.

The fact that Perry’s movies bring in impressive box-office numbers despite their shortcomings is yet more proof that audiences are clamoring for films that edify while they entertain.

After two bonafide hits with little financial backing (Family Reunion cost only $6 million compared to the supposedly low-budgeted Brokeback Mountain’s $14 million), maybe now Perry will finally get the Hollywood support he’s earned.

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