After the giddy success of last year's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry returns with another episode in the domestic saga of his alter ego Madea, the matriarch of an extended African-American family. Dirty secrets, bad rich men, good working-class men with muscles, fear of commitment, horny old guys playing dominoes, a dash of church, a sprinkle of disco, good hair, the Atlanta skyline and Madea-to-the-rescue: As expected, Madea's Family Reunion is as formulaic -- and nutritious -- as a TV dinner.
While Diary was something of a mess, with its mish-mash of vulgar comedy, clichéd melodrama and grab-the-Good Book inspirational segments, it was also a hoot -- an over-the-top crowd-pleaser that relayed plenty of easy catharsis. Madea, with her I'll-do-it-my-damn-self attitude, not only provided the running gags that held the film together, but also functioned as a bullshit detector against the maudlin nature of the melodrama, and as a wishful alternative to the social niceties that constrained the other less-interesting characters.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way to her second big-screen outing, Madea got neutered. Gone is her gun, her open disdain for church and law, and any medicinal weed or liquor. With her cheerful craziness curtailed and no real plot thread of her own, Madea in Reunion is reduced to appearing periodically in other people's dramas and simply dispensing sassy advice.
Once again, Perry wrote the script and most of the music, and he dresses up for three roles: Madea; the flatulent Uncle Joe; and his steady son, Brian. This time out Perry also directs, though that's nothing to brag about. (He shows an odd penchant for aerial shots of buildings for no good reason -- maybe the second hardest-working man in show business also has a pilot's license.)
Reunion plods through its romance-novel plots, and really loses momentum in its final third. The family reunion turns out to be a real bust, entertainment-wise: The laughs are few (sample: Uncle Joe makes a shortie in short shorts bend over ... twice); there's no big confrontation; and any raucous energy grinds to a halt when a pair of old grannies (Cicely Tyson, with Maya Angelou on defense) give a big speech about how today's generation of black folks are disrespecting their heritage by shooting dice, using profanity and "gyrating" in tight clothes.
At a recent screening, Madea's minor antics generated some laughter, but even with a friendly crowd, it felt perfunctory, like when the wacky sit-com actor bursts onto the set. In the end, the sidelined Madea didn't even do much to help set the family straight, scuttling the character's best asset: that beneath all that sass beats a wise and caring heart. If Perry weren't already Madea, I'd tell her to put a hurtin' on his ass.