Sticking to the successful formula that fueled his “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” the 2005 sleeper hit that generated torrid biz in theatrical and homevid venues, multihyphenate Tyler Perry offers another blithely unbalanced mix of low comedy, sudsy sentiment and spiritual uplift in “Madea’s Family Reunion.” And while new pic leans more heavily toward speechifying and soap operatics, ticketbuyers pleased by its predecessor likely will queue up for second helpings. Vid sales should be snappy, even though Perry’s crudely effective crowd-pleaser probably is best enjoyed in urban theaters filled with folks who aren’t shy about offering running commentary about on-screen activities.
Much like “Diary,” “Family Reunion” is based on one of the phenomenally popular stage plays that Perry has performed for predominantly black auds in touring and regional productions. Also like “Diary,” new pic hard-sells the sassy, brassy bluster of the mammoth Madea, a trash-talking matriarch played in outrageous drag by Perry himself.
When she isn’t offering inspirational bromides to loved ones (“It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going!”), or taking a tough-love approach to corporal punishment while raising a troublesome foster child (Keke Palmer), Madea takes verbal potshots at annoying relatives, or simply glowers at the lesser mortals in her orbit.
The literally larger-than-life character gets a bit less screentime in “Family Reunion,” so that Perry (who also serves as director) can concentrate on script’s more serious elements. But that may have been a mistake: The heavily melodramatic tone that predominates throughout much of the pic could have used more leavening with comic relief.
Most of “Family Reunion” is devoted to upheavals endured by Madea’s nieces: Lisa (Rochelle Aytes), whose glam mother (Lynn Whitfield) is pushing her into marriage with a wealthy but abusive financial consultant (Blair Underwood); and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), Lisa’s half-sister, a single mother who can’t believe (or easily accept) her good fortune when she finally meets her sensitively hunky Mr. Right (Boris Kodjoe).
Pic proceeds at a herky-jerky, stop-and-start pace as scenario lurches from one dramatic crescendo to the next, interrupted only by episodes of Perry’s broadly played comic riffing. That this ungainly and inelegant hodgepodge of tears and guffaws has any genuine emotional impact is a tribute to the compelling performances of Aytes and Anderson.
Cicely Tyson drops by during the titular family reunion — which, surprisingly, doesn’t take up much of the pic — to chide the guests for behavior unbecoming proud African-Americans. When she warns the women not to rely on their sexiness, however, her words ring hollow coming so soon after Perry springs a sight gag involving a shapely woman in very tight shorts.
Making his debut as a feature helmer, Perry evidences an uncertain grasp for the mechanics of moviemaking. (For example, he has yet to fully master the concept of matching shots.) Even so, judging from the aud response during an opening day screening, he evidently knows how to score with his target demographic.
Compared to the visually drab “Diary,” new pic comes off as an appreciably more impressive tech package. Trick photography occasionally impresses as Perry once again shares scenes with himself as Joe, Madea’s chronically cantankerous (and shamelessly horny) brother, and/or Brian, her straight-arrow nephew. Soundtrack is peppered with aptly chosen pop classics, ranging from Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” to — of course! — Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”