I had no plans to watch this movie, let alone in a theater and on opening night. Then one fall weekend, my pal decided to raise the stakes on our fantasy football match-up, and then Ronnie Hillman couldn't hold on to the ball, and I lost by four points. My punishment: seeing Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas in the theater. My friend and critic Ben Bailey has taken it upon himself to watch and review all the Madea films, so he was ready and planning to watch the latest. I accompanies him for one magical night of holiday messages bequeathed by a large man in drag pretending to be an old woman.
Madea (Tyler Perry) is called into action to help drive her sister Eileen (Ana Maria Horsford) to Alabama. Eileen wants to surprise her daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), for Christmas. Lacey is working in a small-town as a teacher. Her husband, Conner (Eric Lively), is trying to engineer a new strain of corn to help his hometown confront a water shortage. There's just one problem. Eileen hasn't told her mom she got married... and to a white man. Lacey is worried that the news would kill her mother since Eileen has a weak heart. So Conner has to pretend to be a farmhand while Eileen visits. Then, unexpectedly, Conner's parents (Larry the Cable Guy, Kathy Najimy) arrive to spend Christmas with their family, but they too must get in on the act. The small town is also in trouble of losing lots of money if they cannot put together their annual Christmas Jubilee celebration. Lacey's ex-boyfriend Oliver (JR Lemon) swoops in to offer a corporate savior, but there are strings to attached, and he'd certainly like to get closer to Lacey.
I am about to type a string of words I never thought could possibly be put together in the English language: Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas, also starring thespian Larry thy Cable Guy, is not altogether terrible. I feel like a weight has been lifted just admitting this. Oh, let there be no question that this is a bad movie in just about every way, but the simply bad and poorly executed outweighs the terrible. To be fair my expectations could not have been any lower, especially after suffering through my first Tyler Perry movie ever this year, the earlier 2013 film, Temptation. This was my first Madea film. Part of my other entertainment was observing my audience, the mostly full theater on opening night, and charting their reactions to Madea and my own differences in opinion. I can't in good conscience suggest this is a reason for people to go see this movie, but there it is.
Every actor not named Perry or Cable Guy looks like they could sure use some more direction; they're hungry for it. Actually, Najimy (The Guilt Trip) and Larry make a good team and you're actually pleased when they enter the story, providing an alternative to Madea's shenanigans. I'll credit Perry with this twist: the redneck family is tolerant from day one and compassionate human beings and the conflict focuses on a black woman racist against white people. Although in the year 2013, this seems like a strangely dated conflict to get so worked up over. This is also the least grating Larry the Cable guy has ever been in a movie, including the Pixar Cars franchise. But these are acting professionals. The rest of the cast looks is filled with Pretty Bland Young People, all of who look like they'd rather be on a CW drama. Sumpter (Sparkle) in particular comes across like discount Zoe Saldana. Hey, there is a former CW star involved in this too, Chad Michael Murray (TV's un-canceable One Tree Hill, House of Wax) and while his character is dumb, the town's chief redneck, he's actually fine when you can make out what he's saying. But the best actor in the whole movie turns out to be Alicia Witt (Urban Legends, 88 Minutes) as Murray's put-upon wife. If there's anything approaching subtlety in this mess, it's through Witt's graceful performance of a woman struggling against her husband for what she believes is best for her child.
The Madea character, Perry's most famous alter ego, can have a numbing effect that mellows your judgment of an otherwise unlikable figure. Our introduction to the matriarch is her brief stint working at a retail store. She's unfailingly rude to customers asking ordinary questions, she's hostile, threatens violence readily, and then, when rightly fired, creates a scene and literally steals from the store. In mere minutes, I'm left with the impression that this elderly grandmother who looks like a linebacker is just a horrible human being and should be in jail. And this impression sticks for some time, that is, until you begin to adopt a Stockholm syndrome-like appreciation for her mean-spirited bickering and retaliation. As we sit and watch Eileen act like a horrible human being, so condescending and needlessly hurtful to her unknown in-laws, the balance of most terrible shifts, and we start to root for Madea because she's the only one who cuts through the nonsense, the only one to speak truth to Eileen's reproachful behavior. In the end, you may come to appreciate her being there to set people straight. I still think the whole Madea character is a large miscalculation on Perry's part, a character that's never as funny as he thinks it is (though eight movies in, so what do I know?). The constant string of malapropisms feels like the dying riffs of a deflated improv jag. There are several scenes that involve lines given off screen as if Perry is still experimenting with the scene. In the end credits bloopers, which are also not funny, it looks like Perry's shooting style is just to turn the camera on and say whatever. This is a character born to be a supporting player if utilized at all. Though her best asset is when here happens to be a worse character onscreen to whom she can focus her ire. So as long as Madea keeps starring in movies alongside more horrible human beings, we should be fine.
Part of my forgiveness with several of the film's sins goes back to its inception as a Christmas fable. You see these kinds of movies all the time on TV, where the threat of not having the small town's Christmas ceremony is going to bankrupt the whole town in an impenetrable dark cloud of holiday misery. These are the movies where plots hinge on silly things given way too much significance, and where solutions can be pulled out of nowhere and the film's family-friendly message tied up nicely in a bow. In other words, it's a world not meant to remotely echo our own reality. And so I ended up giving A Madea Christmas more leeway during the many, many times its onscreen actions conflicted with credulity, because it doesn't matter. So then...
Who cares if Conner is a college-educated scientist and doesn't know the difference between male and female cows? Who cares if Conner conducts cutting-edge bio-engineering in an open barn with, what appears to be, doing little more than pouring different liquids into different vials? Who cares that the town lawyer I so incompetent he can't be trusted to read a contract that is all of three pages? Who cares that catching a glimpse of a husband and wife in bed, with the husband under a sheet, is immediately interpreted as Klan membership, because what other possible explanations could there be? Who cares that there is a Klan meeting that Madea accidentally walks in on, and oh yes, they all happen to be in uniform? Who cares that the town's chief redneck bullies the mayor into firing a teacher when I'm pretty sure that duty is not under the mayor's direct powers? Who cares that for no reason there is a Naked Gun-style tracking shot that involves passing YouTube celebrities Sweet Brown ("Ain't nobody got time for that") and Antoine Dodson ("Hide your children and hide your wives...")? Who cares if a character believes saying things in public over a microphone to shame a corporation into charitable giving is tantamount to an unbreakable oral agreement? Who cares about the wanton violation of the separation of church and state throughout the film?
Let me dig into that last one for just a bit. Perry takes up the "War on Christmas" mantle and dominates his conclusion with this non-conflict conflict. Turns out the company that is saving the town's Christmas Jubilee festivity, thus saving jobs and keeping the beleaguered town afloat, has the audacity to request a secular ceremony. First off, this entire service is coordinated and produced by the local town's government, on government property, and already a violation of the reach of government and religion. Even their classrooms have giant wooden crosses in them. What about anyone in this town who doesn't happen to be Christian? I suppose anybody with differing religious beliefs is just not welcomed in this part of Alabama. But the most eye-rolling part is when characters screech that some vague omnipresent corporate or bureaucratic entity is taking away Christmas or stopping them from celebrating Christmas. NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU FROM CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS. Some of us just don't believe that it's government's place to advocate or do so on government property, and the courts agree. Anyway, it's an easy target for Perry and my crowd seemed to be nodding dutifully along to the whole "keep Christ in Christmas" message. It seems like a cheap way to unify the town, and it is.
Perry has been knocking out about two movies a year since he came onto the scene in 2005, and I still don't know if he properly knows how to adapt his skills to the screen. The tone is uneven and the comedy usually falls flat, but there are just moments that make you shake your head in befuddlement. This is the SECOND Perry movie this year where a mother has been lying to her daughter for decades about her father being dead when he really ran out of them. Perry also decides to fill his holiday film with Christmas-related wipes. One second we'll be watching some serious drama and then a giant animated Christmas tree will fly across the screen transitioning us to another. What? I've never seen this many wipes in a film short of a movie that had Star Wars in its title. From an acting standpoint, I still feel like Perry's direction is more theatrical, trying to play to the people in the cheap seats. Too many scenes feel rudderless, with assorted actors just feeding more lines to Madea so she can continue on a longer improvisation before somebody remembers to pick up the plot again. The film also ends immediately following the climax, the solution to the town's ails, without resolution. The camera pans up above the town and cue the end credits. It's a bit abrupt.
Then again after directing over ten movies, many starring the Madea character, there is little incentive for Perry to change his style. His brand has made him one of the most lucrative entertainers in the industry, and he has a thriving studio of his own in Georgia, pumping out content and giving lots of African-American actors valuable experience and exposure with parts that don't include Black Best Friend to the White Lead. Perry is a one-man industry and has legions of fans that will make any one of his movies a hit. They want what they want, and Perry is going to shovel it out to them. A Madea Christmas looks to be more of the same. It's generally leaden in its comedy, filled with heavy-handed messages, a loose narrative built around propping up Madea improv riffs, and the character's mean-spiritedness only really works when she's attacking a deserving party. I'll have to defer to Ben Bailey on where this ranks up there in the franchise (he said it may be the best), but for me, I was expecting terrible and was treated to mostly just bad. That's a victory. Merry Christmas everyone! Hallelujer.
Nate's Grade: C-