His last film For Colored Girls had more maturity and substance than anything he has done in the past, but Tyler Perry has regressed to familiar and fairly noxious ground with Madea's Big Happy Family. Harping on the familiar themes and character types from all the previous films with Madea in the title, the movie demonstrates if nothing else that he knows how his checks are signed, and artistic growth is nothing compared to pleasing his built-in audience with the same sap and slapstick they've paid for nine times before.
The contrast between For Colored Girls-- which was a flawed film, to be sure, but at least interesting-- and this movie is defined sharply by Loretta Devine, who played the sassy and sexually confident Juanita in the previous film but is practically entombed as a suffering mother in Big Happy Family. Early in the film her character Shirley is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and quite rationally she attempts to gather her three grown children at her home to break the news. Despite being a living saint, though, Shirley has raised two kids who are monsters and a third who is dating one, Tammy (Natalie Desselle) is mother to two bratty boys and constantly belittles her husband Harold (Rodney Perry); Kimberly (Shannon Kane) is a frigid real estate broker who constantly belittles her husband Calvin ("Old Spice guy" Isaiah Mustafa); and Byron (Bow Wow) is under constant pressure from his girlfriend Renee (Lauren London ) to go back to selling crack.
Perry's moral universe has always acknowledged only two types-- the good-hearted heroes and the villains who need to learn a lesson-- but it's alarming that in Big Happy Family, every single bad character is female. Not only that, but the lessons these terrible women must learn about respecting their husband's authority and not prioritizing work over family seem like deliberate rejoinders to feminism; Big Happy Family leans less heavily on Christian messages than some of Perry's other work, but swaps it out for soppy morality based around a woman's role in the home and the triumph of the solid family unit.
After a while it's hard to know what's more irritating, the false morality of the movie's drama or the comic relief sideshow provided by a quartet of elderly characters, led of course by the loud and abrasive Madea (Perry himself, in drag). Two of them, father and daughter duo Brown (David Mann) and Cora (Tamela Mann), are major characters on the Perry-produced TBS series Meet the Browns, which makes their entire subplot feel more like a corporate tie-in than anything that belongs in the film. And though Perry deserves a kind of respect for inventing a character as out-there and bizarre as Madea, his other character Joe-- an elderly man whose joke seems to be repeating his own jokes to death-- is simply mystifying.
Maybe the most frustrating thing of all about Big Happy Family, though, is the occasional flash of something worthwhile. As Byron's gum-snapping ex girlfriend Sabrina, Teana Taylor mines every bit of comedy out of her screeching character, taking a crassly written role and running with it. And Mustafa and Bow Wow, though playing dull-as-dirt characters, manage to inject life into two men who may as well be cut directly from menswear catalogs. It's a relief to see talented actors take advantage of their roles in a film that wants to bury them under moral lessons and lifeless direction, but you know what would be even better? If Perry took his power and roster of actors dying to work with him and even attempted to make a good movie.