Tuesday, April 29, 2008



Yes. I saw it.

MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION is one in a series of films by Tyler Perry. Perry made his name on the so-called chitlin circuit, producing and directing and starring in touring plays targeted at African American audiences. If you live in a big city you've probably seen TV ads for some of them, things like BEAUTY PARLOR, stuff like that. Perry's films have been wildly successful with African American audiences, while getting a good deal of contempt from just about everybody else. When I mentioned that I had seen the film, nobody could quite believe that I had actually bothered with it. (Full disclosure: it was a beautiful Saturday, I was in a shitty mood at not being able to think of anything to do but stay at home and watch TV, and lo and behold MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION appeared on cable.)

And yeah, it is a pretty lousy movie. The best that can be said is that Perry has surrounded himself with competent staff. The movie is slickly produced, certainly better than a lot of other films I can think of, and Perry has at least mastered the apparently difficult art of putting the camera where it needs to be so that we can see what needs to be seen. But his sheer competence (or probably more accurately, the sheer competence of his production crew) can't disguise the fact that the film is a predictable batch of dramatic family drama moments, easy enlightenment cliches, snappy one-liners, hand-on-hip payback moments, and racial empowerment platitudes.

For all the huffing and puffing and laughing and weeping and fighting and payback and abuse and one-liners, there isn't a single moment of recognizable messy humanity in the entire film. Everybody's got perfect teeth, everybody dresses perfectly and is always gorgeously made up, the eligible males are all dazzlingly handsome and conspicuously muscular, the elegible women are ravishing and slim. The characters are just barely one-dimensional, but with some rather devastating backstories that hint that something interesting could have been made of the people and film in the right hands.

The story, such as it is, involves two sisters. One is a Single Mother who is being pursued by Mr. Right and the other a Beauty being pushed by her Monstrous Social-Climbing Mother into a clearly ill-advised marriage to Mr. Wrong, a really abusive but fabulously wealthy and very handsome control freak. The Monstrous Mother is really monstrous, more than just a social climber. It is revealed that, years before the film begins, she was so desperate for comfort and security for herself and her daughters that she actually allowed a specific ex-Man In Her Life to have sexual relations with one of her daughters.

Oy, the drama. The relationship between the two sisters and their mother could have been elevated into something really powerful and interesting, in the hands of a talented writer/director. Unfortunately, Perry goes for the quick and easy Big Scenes For Actors kind of thing. Will Single Mom put aside her past emotional injuries and recognize Mr. Right for the Embodiment of Black Masculine Perfection that he all too clearly is? Will Beauty come to her senses and dump the Control Freak and tell off Monstrous Mom? Will Monstrous Mom reveal exactly why she is so Monstrous? Will everybody throw off the shackles of past oppression and be EMPOWERED? Will there be payback for all?

What the hell do you think?

Perry plays Madea, who is apparently related to the sisters and their mother somehow. She's a larger than life creation, a no-nonsense Gramma who dispenses Folksy Wisdom. When that doesn't work, when someone foolishly answers back or doesn't heed her, she quickly resorts to Ass Whupping. She's every elderly woman from your childhood who seemed to hold you to unhuman standards of behavior while threatening you with medieval torture if you disobeyed She's like Oprah crossed with Mike Tyson. When she isn't intimidating her singularly unimpressed Brother Man (also played by Perry) or having heart to hearts with the two sisters in her kitchen, Madea is helping a poor foster child she finds herself stuck with as punishment for breaking house arrest. No, really, that's what happens.

Yes, there's actually a Family Reunion, where more pro-family platitudes are served up, most emphatically by Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson (God in heaven, Cicely Tyson!!) as matriarchs who twinkle for all they are worth as they Approve of the Good Chirren (the ones getting married and who are a credit to their families and their race) and frown and shake their heads and go "mmm mmm mmm!" as they Disapprove of the Bad Chirren (the ones who gamble and disobey and talk on the phone even after having been instructed not to). It gets really choking when Ms. Angelou even gets to deliver one of her poems at the film's climax. It goes something like this:

I tell you things you know already.
I tell them to you repeatedly.
I tell them to you in exagerratedly clear dic-tion.
I will repeat myself.
I will vary my emphasis to make sure my message gets across.
I will do it like this:
I will repeat myself.
I WILL repeat myself.
I will REPEAT myself.
I will repeat MYSELF.
Now that I have repeated myself:
Live happily ever after.
Live HAPPILY ever after.

And so on. My diabetic friends are warned to leave the room when she's onscreen.

There are plenty of other howlers. Mr. Right takes Single Mom to what seems to be some sort of open mike jazz/poetry/painting nightclub. He signs them up to perform, and she recites a poem entitled The Courage To Love. No, really, she does, with full jazz trio accompaniment, before an appreciative audience, while Mr. Right creates a spontaneous painting of her. I'm not making this up.

The actors generally do their very considerable best to put the cliches over. But they're mostly defeated by the sheer vapidity of the script. The big showdown between the sisters and their mother is particularly annoying, lots of tear-brimming eyes and tremblingly intense voices, the cliched acting matching the cliched writing. Here's one memorable bit of dialogue:

Single Mom (thinking that Mr. Right just wants her for sex): Every man comes around for something.
Mr. Right (exhibiting pure Christian manly virtue and decency): Some men come to restore.

Sometimes they're defeated by the apparent lack of a script: Madea's monologue advising Beauty to whup Mr. Wrong's abusive ass with a pot of grits comes off as improvised, and not well improvised. Tyler Perry is no Richard Pryor.

There are also some icky moments. One scene begins with Madea's Brother Man deeply moved while watching a scene from GOOD TIMES showing an abused young girl (played by pre-nosejob Janet Jackson) begging her mother not to burn her with an iron. His eyes fill with tears and he wonders aloud why anyone would treat chirren like dat. Shortly thereafter Brother Man is watching Madea putting down her own iron and whupping the foster daugher's ass for cutting school. The scene feels like an answer to possible criticism about Madea's gleeful readiness to resort to violence (she corrects rather than abuses, get it?) but what am I to make of Brother Man's getting all excited at the punishment, muttering strangely sexual things about something shaking like jello?

I guess this is in keeping with the air of cluelessness about the whole enterprise, including that title. MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION. Even spelled as it is, the name Madea carries some mythic associations about which Tyler Perry seems utterly ignorant. Maybe a second draft of the script was in order, one that addressed the discrepancy between the ceaseless platitudes about the Importance of FAMILY versus the fact that everyone's problems come from that same FAMILY that we're continually supposed to be running to.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


"Do you fear me, Rochefort?"
"Yes, Eminence. I fear you. I also...hate you."
"I love you, my son, even when you fail."

Charlton Heston died over the weekend. I have surprisingly mixed feelings about him. Yeah, his politics were generally repulsive, we know this. Yeah, he could suck big time. But we seem to owe him big time for Orson Welles' being allowed to direct the masterful TOUCH OF EVIL.

There is one Heston performance I like. I think he's splendid as Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester's films based on Dumas' THE THREE MUSKETEERS. His Cardinal is smart and wicked, running an entire nation at war while organizing plots to discredit the Queen of France. There is even one single instance, all the way at the very end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, where Heston displays something like a sense of humor. His recognition that he has been out-maneuvered, and a final little "go away, boy" dismissal gesture he makes towards D'Artagnan, are the most human moments I ever saw him deliver as an actor. Richard Lester did what no other director, not even Orson Welles or William Wyler, could do: he got Heston to deliver a sustained performance of intelligence and humor that lives onscreen.

Yeah, he could be as bad as everyone says he is. He seems to have been very willing to settle for the easiest, simplest solutions. When he plays noble, he plays NOBLE. When he plays angry, he plays ANGRY. When he plays happy, he plays HAPPY. And that's about it. He's the King Of One-Note Sincerity.

This can be seen most clearly in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, the great mad camp classic from Cecil B. DeMille. Surrounded by actors like Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson having a wonderful time chewing the scenery, camping up a storm, and apparently competing to see who can best get away with the outrageous overheated dialogue, Heston alone plays it not just straight but STRAIGHT. Robinson's Slimy Little Traitor and Brynner's Hunky Pagan Pharoah Ramses, for example, manage to hit something real and recognizably human for all their cartoonishness. Heston's Moses just can't compete: there's no joy or even basic humanity in him, either as a character or as a performance. Moses' reaction to Ramses' final capitulation, a loud solemn prayer of thanksgiving to the Eternal God, is written and played in such a way as to make you want an 11th Commandment about winning gracefully.

I almost forgive all the solemnity and High Authority when Heston parts the Red Sea. Not God, not the John P. Fulton's special effects men. Heston does it. The Red Sea parts because he damn well tells it to. I can't imagine it doing otherwise.

And I'll say it: Heston doesn't entirely suck in BEN HUR, a movie I seem to be alone in finding to be more than an excuse for a chariot race. While Heston is all too often acted off the screen by the likes of Jack Hawkins or the sublime Hugh Griffith, there are occasional arresting little moments of humanity that surprise. His amusement at Hugh Griffith's perfectly delivered joke about monogamy being "ungenerous" seems genuine and unplanned, a rarity for Heston. This may have been the result of working with William Wyler instead of De Mille, of course. There's a lot of gossip about the alleged "gay subtext" that uncredited script doctor Gore Vidal claims to have added to the relationship between Heston's Ben Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala, which apparently was kept secret from Heston because he wouldn't have been able to handle it. It certainly seems that Boyd is playing that thwarted romantic vibe for all it is worth, while Heston settles for basic tears-in-the-blue-eyes joy at seeing a dear childhood friend. And there it is: no one would ever accuse Heston of adding an extra level or playing a subtext. He just couldn't handle it.