How old is Tyler Perry’s spitfire matron Madea? Her age isn’t specified (I’d say she’s in her mid-70s), but whatever it is she’s that many years young. She has a sneaky-dog irascibility that won’t quit. And Tyler Perry can’t quit her. He had hinted that “A Madea Family Funeral,” in 2019, might be the last Madea outing. But the pandemic changed his mind. I say that with or without it, Perry would have returned to Madea, because she’s more than his greatest hit — she’s his unleashed id, the character he’s addicted to playing because she expresses so many of his angels and demons.
Of course, she’s also an eternal crowd-pleaser. The first Tyler Perry movie, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (which included an appearance by Madea), was released 17 years ago today. At the time, he’d already been doing Madea onstage for years. But Madea, as a character, has now attained the status of folklore. I’ve seen and reviewed nearly all of Perry’s films, and if you asked me if I’m a Perry fan, I’d say “on and off,” by which I don’t mean that I like some of his movies and dislike others. I mean that in almost all his comedy/soap-opera mashups, there are moments I love and others that leave me shaking my head with an okay-he-didn’t-just-do-that disbelief. That’s the Tyler Perry mix: the good, the bad, and the ugly, the sincere and the outrageous, the clever and the amateur, the diabolical and the banal, all rolled up in a big goodbye hug of a “Love yourself!” message.
“A Madea Homecoming,” the second Perry film to be released on Netflix, is based on Perry’s 2020 stage work “Madea’s Farewell Play,” so I went in expecting it to be a relatively restrained affair. Actually, it’s the fastest, funniest “Madea” movie in quite some time. Remember when Eddie Murphy played half a dozen family members in “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”? Whenever Perry plays Madea along with at least one of her kin, he shares Murphy’s spirit of cussed, ribald, let-it-rip brashness. But Perry has his own inimitable style of old folks with smart mouths.
In “A Madea Homecoming,” Madea, the pious and not-so-secretly anarchic church lady in her gray hair and gaudy flowered dresses, is still, in her old-school way, an outlaw, a pothead matriarch with a shady past who prides herself on living outside the system. She’s got a house full of warrants, the result of ignoring things like fines and judges’ decrees; she’s got stories about what it was like to work the pole: she’s got a tiny gun (and yes, it will go off); she thinks running from the popo keeps her young (and it does). Her brother, the lusty sponging Uncle Joe (also played by Perry), and her equally lusty cousin Aunt Bam (the brilliant Cassi David-Patton) are always teeing off on each other, but they’re really two peas in a hustler’s pod. As all their relatives come together to celebrate the college graduation of Tim (Brandon Black), who’s Madea’s great-grandson, when enough of them have gathered the crusty Joe barks out, “I got a question! Why the hell are all these Negroes in this house — is this the Amistad?”
Joe is irrepressible, but he’s smarter than he looks. As soon as he learns that Tim and his “friend,” Davi (Isha Blakker), are dorm roommates, he figures out what’s going on with them. “A Madea Homecoming” is here’s-what-happened-to-the-’70s-inner-city comedy that turns into an earnest coming-out story with maybe one or two more secrets than it can bear.
There’s an oddly amusing, ironic whiplash that takes place when you watch a “Madea” movie. The senior citizens onscreen razz each other with the fast and furious burn-this-or-I’ll-burn-you glee of sitcom characters on dirty-minded overdrive. But the younger folks (i.e., everyone under 50) are so caught up in their melodramatic troubles that it’s as if they’re humor-impaired. This time, Perry pulls a fast one on the audience. We think that Tim telling everyone in his family he’s gay is going to cause a ruckus, but most of them, like Joe, already had it figured out. They’ve got no issue with loving Tim for who he is. Tim’s problem is that his partner, Davi, loves somebody else — and not just anybody else. Someone…close to home. It’s a little surreal, a little icky, and a little nuts.
But it’s a Tyler Perry movie, so you roll with it. You roll with it so that you can watch Perry team up with Brendan O’Carroll, the star of the BBC sitcom “Mrs. Brown’s Boys,” who plays Mrs. Brown here — she’s Davi’s Irish great-aunt, and she’s like a less funny Mrs. Doubtfire who says “Fookin'” just often enough that you’re glad she’s around. You watch it to see everyone dig into Madea’s private stash of candies — chocolates with a marijuana center — that turns the movie, however briefly, into a stoner comedy. You watch it for the film’s wry denunciation of Defund the Police and for the flashback to 1955, where Madea re-enacts the story of how her man was stolen by her very best friend, who according to Madea was Rosa Parks. It seems the whole reason she refused to get off that bus was to avoid an ass-whuppin’.
Okay, that’s so silly it’s just plain wrong. But it’s part of the “Madea” package: that you’re going to sit back and relax into a movie that has no pretense beyond looking like it made itself up as it went along. Tyler Perry can be a clunky movie storyteller (and, in his serial TV work, a much better and more interesting one), but in “A Madea Homecoming” he does something that’s harder to bring off than it looks: He keeps these characters popping, as if he were juggling their egos. Madea, Uncle Joe, and Aunt Bam are a little bit Marx Brothers and a little bit gangsta. And Madea, in her fusty way, has become eternal. Perry doesn’t just play her, he channels her. Which may be why he can’t (and shouldn’t) stop.