“A Madea Family Funeral” is the eleventh Tyler Perry film to showcase Perry in the role of the fire-breathing battle-axe-in-flowered-print-dresses inner-city drag matriarch Madea. Since Perry has said that it will be the last, it seems reasonable to assume that the funeral the movie pivots around might be Madea’s own. Is there anyone left for her to terrorize? Have no fear, though: Madea is alive and well (even if it seems a borderline spoiler to reveal that she doesn’t die). And I’m not convinced that her retirement will be any more permanent than a typical rock star’s. Also still kicking, I’m pleased to report, is her posse — the loose-cannon trio of geriatric relatives who’ve become her backup chorus in cussed infamy, though having been through more than a few Perry films themselves, their voices now come through just as loudly and riotously as Madea’s.
There’s Madea’s brother, Joe, played by Perry as a raunchy white-haired coot with a horny twinkle who still talks about himself as if he’s a pimp (his word). There is Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), with her high coif of blue hair, who fancies herself a prim and proper lady but has a way of spewing whatever she’s supposed to be keeping a lid on. And there’s Hattie (Patrice Lovely), with her wizened pursed-lip gleam and her baby voice (she sounds like a cross between a four-year-old and a siren), who makes the others seem as sober as a church-social committee. (If these three were the Marx Brothers, Joe would be Groucho, Bam would be Chico, and Hattie would be Harpo.)
Madea and her retirement-home-of-the-hood Greek chorus get away with the sort of casual blasphemies that few characters in pop culture could right now. (Joe doesn’t just joke about physical and sexual abuse; he’s for it.) But the dirty fun of their ricochet patter isn’t simply that it’s outrageous. It’s that they’re driven to say these things; they don’t have a whisper of the politeness or decorum that would ever incline them to hold back their thoughts. In their eyes, not saying what you think is “boojie” — in other words, it’s what their descendants who’ve gotten too white for their own good now do.
As a filmmaker, Tyler Perry is their kindred spirit. He’s the sophisticated string-puller who has orchestrated all of this, but Madea, it’s clear, is his id, and the primal soap opera he stages in “A Madea Family Funeral” is Perry’s own form of spewing. You could say that the movie, in tone, is nearly schizophrenic. It divides itself between the over-the-top burlesque of Madea and her cronies, shooting their damn mouths off, and a ripely adulterous melodrama that, in its “serious” way, is every bit as over-the-top.
An extended clan of upscale relatives gather for the anniversary of Vianne (Jen Harper) and Anthony (Derek Morgan), who are like family royalty — only to discover, in the most naked way possible, that the celebration is a sham. When critics make sport of Tyler Perry’s vulgar operatic broadness, they’re talking about stuff like this: In an Atlanta hotel room, AJ (Courtney Burrell), a sullen scoundrel, is shacking up with his brother’s fiancée (Aeriél Miranda). By complete coincidence, Anthony, one half of the anniversary couple, is in the hotel room right next door, where he has just expired during an S&M tryst. Which results in his corpse, with a ball gag in his mouth, being discovered by Madea and her posse.
You could ridicule the insane luridness of this, but here’s the thing: Tyler Perry means it. He believes in the malign flamboyance he’s showing us as gutbucket drama. “A Madea Family Funeral” is raw pulp, but pulp made with conviction — more conviction, I’d say, than Perry has shown in his last three or four films. The ribald comedy and therapeutic “tragedy” work together here. They’re the opposite sides of the same coin: an exposé of the demons that can undermine people still chafing against oppressed options.
The hidden sexual drama worms its way toward its only natural climax: cathartic exposure. But the joke is that Madea and her cronies are exposing the secrets at almost every turn; they can’t not. But they’re such dotty eccentrics that no one registers what they’re saying. Perry has added a new character to his gallery of ancient cranks: He now also plays cousin Heathrow, a legless wreck in a balding fringe of Jheri Curls, who speaks hilariously blunt erotic declarations with a post-throat-cancer voice enhancer that makes him sound like a depraved robot. And when Perry finally stages the funeral, he has a great time satirizing the endlessness of African-American rites of grief; when Madea, the event’s MC, gets up to the pulpit and cuts short a gospel singer as if he were giving an overly long awards speech, you know that the movie has trashed all piety. “A Madea Family Funeral” isn’t good, exactly, but it’s Perry good. It combines weaponized comedy and sexualized soap opera in a way that defuses all shame.