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MOVIE REVIEW

Madea's Big Happy Family

There’s a lot of meanness in 'Happy Family'

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 25, 2011

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Just because ABC is pulling the plug on “All My Children’’ and “One Life to Live,’’ that doesn’t mean we can’t still get 20 laundromats worth of soap. Especially if no one’s pulling the plug on Tyler Perry. “Madea’s Big Happy Family’’ is more than just an industrial-strength soap opera. It’s the entire daytime-television industrial complex.

When mad-old Madea crashes her car into a fast-food chain (it’s called Smax!) because the funky window manager says she’s out of ham, the movie is simultaneously the local Atlanta news-at-noon, which the characters watch, and the news itself. When that same window manager wants to embarrass her baby-daddy, she pops up on the very Maury Povich talk show that Madea watches with her armchair-bound brother, Joe. They don’t need the TV since “Maury’’ is basically happening in any scene Perry sets in a living room, hospital, or at a dinner table.

“Madea’s Big Happy Family’’ nonsensically knots the spiritual and the salacious, asking gossipy questions then giving pulpit answers so that the movie is wonderfully, woefully absurd. Who’s dying? Amen! Who’s verging on divorce? Praise the Lord! Who’s drug-dealing? Get back now, Satan! Who’s dieting (or should be)? Can I get a witness! For the record, the correct answers, in order, are: “Shirley’’; “her two squabbling daughters’’; “her son’’; and “how much time do you have?’’

Yes, y’all, Miss Shirley (Loretta Devine) has cancer, and all she wants is to get her kids together to tell her terrible news. It’s not worth asking how she masks from them the depleting effects of chemotherapy or how come the sparkling actress suddenly seems so droopy. In any case, every time she tries to share her drama, her children’s drama beats her to it. If it’s not Byron’s baby-mama (Teyana Taylor) — the one who made Madea commit her literal drive-through, the one who took her one-woman show to “Maury’’ — it’s bougie Kimberly (Shannon Kane) berating her husband (Isaiah Mustafa, the Old Spice guy) or miserable Tammy (Natalie Desselle Reid) berating hers. Once, it’s even the police coming to re-arrest poor Byron (Shad “Bow Wow’’ Moss, who’s pretty good). Obviously, it’s Madea to the rescue.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the movie, Perry brings back more of his stage creations (he’s adapted another of his plays): Madea’s squeaky, inflatable baby-daddy, Brown (David Mann), who — shiver all our timbers — just had a colonoscopy, and Cassi Davis as the nasty pothead Aunt Bam. Nearly every scene is a stage for one of them to cut up even more than they do on Perry’s TBS sitcom “House of Payne,’’ but never at the same time. It’s the comedy equivalent of a round of drum solos. The Max Roach of the crew might be Taylor, who’s a newcomer. But, like Tasha Smith, a Perry regular who’s not here, she has an enchanting way with a stereotype. Taylor’s ghetto gold digger is so embarrassingly good the NAACP should just retire her jersey now.

For his part, Perry continues to cross-dress and grow as the force of non-nature that is Madea. Whether he’s flying across the Smax’s order counter, telling off whomever, or shouting many pages of exposition, Perry does so with churchy anger. In the movie’s outtakes, some of the younger actors gaze upon him with fear in their eyes. In those housedresses, Madea is so powerful she could lay out Thor. And yet, once again, Perry doesn’t know his own strength.

Most of us still have the all-female post-traumatic stress disorder Perry gave us in “For Colored Girls.’’ We may be stuck in last November, but he’s moved on. And by “on’’ I mean “backward.’’ “Madea’s Big Happy Family’’ is full of men who suffer the wrath of vicious, selfish, shallow, stupid, abusive women, as though he’d begun thinking about “For Colored Boys.’’ Most of the sexy, upstanding, too-good-to-be-real black males who show up in the movies now do so in Perry’s (“For Colored Girls,’’ aside). But here their addiction to goodness is almost as pathological as the ladies’ pleasure in badness: It’s emotional S&M.

The men don’t know why their women are so mean. And because Perry’s screenwriting has never been sure how much, if any, psychology to use, the women and their families also don’t know why — until, in some shock plot twist, they do. Perry’s strategy as a dramatist is to create excessively wretched and lowly characters, then use tragedy, comeuppance, or the biblical rod that keeps a child spoil-free, to make them behave. It’s rarely fair. These people don’t come to Jesus. Perry drags them.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

MADEA’S BIG HAPPY FAMILY

Written and directed by: Tyler Perry, based on his play

Starring: Perry, Loretta Devine, Shad “Bow Wow’’ Moss, Shannon Kane

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some language, some old stoned people, and violence mostly at the hands of Tyler Perry in drag)

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