Tiffany (Diamond White), the spoiled princess heroine of “Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween,” is 17 years old, which means that she must have been around five when Perry’s first movie came out. It’s a sign of how the world has evolved since then that “Boo!” opens with a sequence set in a mostly white fraternity, Upsilon Theta, on the day of its annual Halloween bash. Tiffany, trying to win the approval of her two older (white) friends, will wind up sneaking out of her house, joining the party, and narrowly avoid being pounced on by Jonathan (Yousef Erakat), the frat president who looks like a geek Vin Diesel. But there isn’t a moment in any of this that involves so much as a buried hint of racial awareness. (Unless, of course, you count the fact that half of the film’s frat boys talk like “gangstas.”) It’s simply a non-issue. And that, you might say, is progress.
Of course, this being a Tyler Perry movie, it’s also set in a place where things haven’t evolved at all, and that’s the one occupied by Tiffany’s great-aunt, Madea, that old-school badass frump hellion who never gets old. It has something to do with her rage, and with how quickly she talks: Perry, done up in pearls and a dress of crimson paisley large enough to house a refrigerator, plays Madea, as always, by tearing through his lines as if the character’s very existence depended on her beating everyone to the punchline. No one speaks as fast as Madea: not her relatives, not the innocents she browbeats into submission, not the dreaded popo. She may look like a stodgy Church Lady, but she’s a bawdy homespun terrorist with the street in her blood — in “Boo!,” she’s always referencing her younger life “on the pole” — and she’s not ashamed of anything she’s done.
The film’s tone is set by a casually outrageous talk she has with her comrades, the genteel but dope-smoking cousin Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) — who keeps her prescription card in hand! — and the infantile Hattie (Patrice Lovely), along with Madea’s ancient white-haired brother, Joe (also played by Perry), that’s all about the vital importance of domestic corporal punishment. “Whup ’em,” says Madea. Or as Hattie puts it, in her lispy baby talk: “Whup. Dat. Ath!” “A little love-tap never hurt nobody,” adds Madea, all common-sensical good cheer.
Brian, Madea’s nephew (the one character played by Perry out of disguise), might beg to disagree. The beatings he endured traumatized him, and so did the moment when Joe tossed him off a roof and a pencil got lodged in his testicle. “Looked like one of them Tootsie Rolls!” smirks Joe. The audience is tempted to take Brian’s side on this. Yet Perry has never put Madea up on screen in order to demonstrate that she’s wrong. “Boo! A Madea Halloween” preaches the gospel of stern discipline that new dads like Brian have lost. It’s another of Perry’s raucous and slovenly comedies of responsibility, which means that its heart is in a very old — and right — place. If only a message that was this solid equalled solid laughs.
The movie, set on what Madea calls “Holler-een,” comes on like a hip-hop animal-house party comedy. But then Madea crashes — and ruins — the party. It gets shut down by the popo, and the frat dudes extract their revenge by taking advantage of the fright-night holiday to scare the holy Bejesus out of Madea and her geezer cronies. They don’t have to put on much of a show: The whole joke is that Madea, beneath her cranky bluster, is full of fear, which is what growing up with the popo will do to you (now there’s a nuance of race). All the frat boys have to do is send one of their own into Madea’s home dressed as a killer clown, or chase after her on the road like zombies. I only wish that I could say she lived up to the movie’s ad campaign by retaliating with a chainsaw, but that image is not in the movie.
“Boo!” should have little trouble connecting with Perry’s fans (who, as the media rarely bothers to acknowledge, are now a multi-racial audience). The actors playing the old folks have scattered fits of inspiration, though you wish their material had been a little more shaped. Patrice Lovely inhabits the old, bent, lusty Hattie with a deep-down sneakiness and a voice like a siren, and Perry makes the happy-to-be-disgruntled Joe a character worthy of Eddie Murphy in his prime. Madea, at this point, is beyond a character. She’s a force, the whirlwind who keeps on giving (even if her ability to truly surprise us left the building long ago). Poor Tiffany, on the other hand, is a heroine in search of a third dimension, though when her brattiness finally gets a comeuppance it’s touching. “Boo! A Madea Halloween” isn’t really in favor of a good whuppin’. It’s just in favor of parents taking back their authority in a way that they seem increasingly challenged to do. That’s a message so sane that it could — and should — have been a self-help book, instead of a comedy impersonating one.