To certain moviegoers, the notion of Tyler Perry’s Madea and Larry the Cable Guy volleying one-liners back and forth before segueing into ham-fisted discussions of racial tolerance may seem the stuff of unspeakable fever dreams. But there’s a more positive way to view it: If the most grotesque cinematic caricatures of Southern black femininity and working-class white masculinity, respectively, can find some common ground, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of us after all. That silver lining aside, “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” is an exceptionally poor piece of holiday cash-in product, rushed and ungainly even by the low standard set by Perry’s seven previous Madea films, yet it should be every bit as profitable.
Though “A Madea Christmas” is nominally adapted from his play of the same name, Perry has strangely crafted an entirely different story and cast of characters for this film, with the lone holdover being his titular ill-tempered matriarch. After trying out some spotty vaudevillian routines as a Santa-clad department-store employee over the opening reel, Madea (Perry) is recruited by her friend/relative Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) for a road trip from Atlanta to small-town Alabama. Eileen’s schoolteacher daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), recently moved to rural Bucktussle – either a stand-in for, or misspelling of, Bug Tussle, Ala. – after eloping with her white paramour, Conner (Eric Lively), whose existence, and race, Lacey has kept secret from her mother. When Eileen arrives for a surprise Christmas visit, Lacey introduces her husband as the “farm boy.”
Also inexplicably in tow with Madea and Eileen is Lacey’s high-school boyfriend, Oliver (JR Lemon), a corporate bigwig of some kind with whom Lacey has reconnected while seeking a corporate sponsor for her school’s annual Christmas jubilee, which the local farmers rely on financially after a newly built dam decimated their crops.
More complications arise when Conner’s hayseed parents (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Najimy), arrive in town for a visit, with the whole family now enlisted to continue Lacey’s charade for the increasingly unpleasant Eileen. (The decision to cast a black woman as the unrepentant bougie bigot who confuses her white in-laws for “the help” could have been interestingly subversive in other hands, though Perry does very little with it.) Furthermore, the corporate sponsor for the town jubilee turns out to be the very same company that built the dam that ruined the local farmlands, though this seems to matter far less to the townsfolk than the company’s insistence on secularizing the Christmas festivities, which allows Perry to throw some particularly patronizing scraps of red meat to any Bill O’Reilly devotees who may have wandered into the theater.
However predisposed (or not) one might be to appreciating their signature personae, Perry and Larry’s scenes together are easily the highlights of the film, as they at least provide these shticksters with the opportunity to bounce old-timey banter off one another, rather than simply performing to the camera. Other comic setpieces range from amiably cliched (Madea’s malaprop-heavy summary of the Book of Luke) to jaw-droppingly awful, reaching a particularly painful nadir when Larry’s ghost-themed sexual role playing causes Eileen to mistake him for a Klansman. Subplots, including a half-hearted treatise on bullying and an adorable little boy (Noah Urrea) with dreams of singing in the Christmas pageant, are scattered artlessly here and there, as are bit roles for long-forgotten viral video sensations Antoine “Bed Intruder” Dodson and Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins.
As a director, Perry seems to have picked up several tricks over the years, yet his obvious disinterest in maintaining a consistent professional tone often proves hysterical. This is the type of enterprise in which Perry will stage a decent half-minute looping dolly shot through the interior of a house, yet wait until nearly the end the film to include establishing shots of key locations. Several botched line readings add some unintentional spice to the more hackneyed stretches of dialogue, and Perry’s insistence on switching scenes via clip art-quality graphic wipes (cartoon Christmas bells and mistletoe, trailing CG glitter) is possibly the funniest element of the whole endeavor.