Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rants on Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family


Beneath the colorfulness and loudness of the comedy in the films of Tyler Perry's oeuvre lies a dark, almost twisted and perverse core, often times in the form of a secret or a past trauma which has stunted characters' personal and spiritual growth for years. Sometimes, such as in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion, this darkness is merely a distraction between the scenes featuring Perry's most infamous and indelible creation, Mabel "Madea" Simmons; in I Can Do Bad All By Myself and Madea Goes to Jail, on the other hand, the contrast between Madea's comedy and the big, emotional storyline makes each film feel fuller than if it was reliant on one more than the other. Madea's Big Happy Family, unfortunately, falls within the first category, mainly because the story's Oh Shit moment is barely explored after its surprise revelation. The problem with this film is that its spoken dark core is merely a hollow shell for an even darker, more horrific core straight from the deepest wells of Perry's subconscious. In its own twisted way, Madea's Big Happy Family is Tyler Perry's version of Lars von Trier's ugly, disturbingly misogynistic Antichrist. Don't get me wrong, you won't see any clits being hacked off with a pair of rusty scissors. What you do see, however, is three grown men with their balls figuratively cut off by scheming, shrewish, all-around nasty wives, girlfriends and baby mamas.

Tyler Perry is known for writing complex female characters--and if you don't believe me, check out For Colored Girls--so it was quite a shock when we are introduced to the women in this big, happy family. Loretta Devine plays Shirley, the matriarch of this family who has just discovered that she her cancer has returned and will ultimately prove fatal this time. She wants to gather her family to break the news to them at the same time, which proves to be easier said than done. We are first introduced to her youngest son Byron, a former drug dealer trying to put his life back together. While barely making enough to cover his child support, he's juggling two women who are, almost literally, sucking the life out of him. The first is his baby mama Sabrina, a classless, obnoxious harpy who speaks like every ghetto chick you've ever seen on Maury. She is trying to get more child support out of Byron, even though he knows she only spends it on herself. No one in the family can stomach her, but it's not as if Renee, Byron's current girlfriend who demands to be kept financially and is unwilling to help out with his child, is any more popular with them. We then meet Tammy, Shirley's youngest daughter. She and her husband, Harold, are raising two of the most obnoxious brats imaginable. Harold wants to discipline them, but Tammy won't let him. In fact, there are quite a lot of things Tammy won't let Harold do and he simply accepts this instead of putting up a fight. Finally, there is Kimberly. In the tradition of many of Perry's film, Kimberly is a young woman who is extremely well off financially but has forgotten her roots in the process of making money and moving up in the (unspoken but obvious) white world. She disrespects her mother and every other member of her family, acting extremely bitchy whenever she has to be around them, which is rare as it is. Even with her husband, she acts as it's a big inconvenience to be in the same room with him. As Perry introduces these horrible women, one by one, I couldn't help but hope that the next problem character would be the male in the relationship. Not only does that seem fair, but normally Tyler Perry evens things out like that. His characters are mostly either Good or Evil but there's always a good balance between the sexes. Madea's Big Happy Family often times feels like the work of a man in a deep, Von Trierian depression who has no way of working through it than to take it out on his female characters. Unlike the actresses Von Trier normally casts, however, none of the ones in this film are good enough to become anything more than the awful one-note caricature Perry has written them as.

Normally, I don't think I would have had as big of a problem with these characters, but there were two things that completely rubbed me the wrong way about them. First of all, after the introduction of the women, Perry includes a scene that shows the three broken, emasculated men off by themselves complaining about the women in their lives. Instead of offering any insight into their relationships or even shift the blame completely from the women, the men are painted as saints who are completely faultless and doing the best they can in their situations. Not only does this lazily water down what could have become some interesting relationship dynamics to work with later in the film, but it also makes no sense within the context of the film. If they are such good men who can divorce themselves enough from their situations to see that there are major problems with their relationships, why do they remain in them? It's one thing if they are at fault at least part way, their women have been acting like this for only a short while and they are somehow caught in a bad romance, for lack of a better word. But these guys are damn near sanctified, so what keeps them in the relationship?

Secondly, the problems with the relationships are either never truly revealed or are resolved in such a pat, uncomplicated way they become nearly laughable. With Tammy and Harold, the specifics of their relationship was clearly an afterthought for Perry: when Harold asks Tammy what exactly is wrong with their marriage, her snippy answer is, essentially, if you don't know what the problem is, you're in bigger trouble than you thought. While this may be a suitable for a "real life" marriage, this answer does nothing to expand our knowledge and interest in their relationship. And if we don't give a shit about them, why should we care whether they work things out or not? They eventually do, unsurprisingly, thanks to some "sound" advice from Madea, which boils down to Harold acting like a man and taking control of the relationship. To further the misogyny, Harold merely raises his voice once and Tammy is all "Yes, master!" to his demands. Strong black woman, my ass.


The big revelation that is the center of Madea's Big Happy Family is very nearly a direct cause of the problems in Kimberly and her husbands relationship. But the problem here is that the problem is introduced so late into the film, and there are so many loose ends to tie up between then and the ending, there is no chance for any true catharsis. They have a moment together at the very end of the film, but it's a very generic "I love you and I promise everything will get better" moment rather than anything that actually deals with the issues on hand.

Not everything in Madea's Big Happy Family is as truly awful as I suggest above. The comedy moments with Madea, complete with her interpretation of the Bible verse "Let the redeemed of the Lord say so" and her "comfort" to Mr. Brown when he thinks he's dying of cancer, literally had me gasping for breath in ways that some of the other Madea films never did. For as strong as the comedy in Madea's Big Happy Family is, though, nothing can erase the horror of the central family. Mr. Perry, we all know you can do better. C-

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