By the standards of Tyler Perry’s Madea series, A Madea Christmas is better than average, for the simple reason that it never attempts to turn the title character—a rude, short-fused, malapropism-prone old woman played by Perry in drag—into a tough-love guru whose advice single-handedly fixes the other characters’ problems. Madea’s comic persona is predicated on unreasonableness, and, try as Perry might, turning her into a voice of reason halfway through the movie never works. This isn’t to say that A Madea Christmas is free of Perry’s signature preachiness; it’s just that it keeps the preachiness separate from the rambling, borderline-vaudeville comedy that is his strong suit.
After getting fired from an Atlanta department store, Madea tags along with her overbearing, hypochondriac friend Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) for a surprise holiday visit to the latter’s daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), who works as a teacher in a rural, all-white Alabama community. Eileen is unaware that her daughter has married a local man (Eric Lively), and, believing her mother would be devastated by the news, Lacey decides to continue keeping the marriage a secret, introducing her husband as a hired farmhand. This leads to a lot of racially reversed culture-clash comedy, complete with name-mangling (though with prototypically white, Red State names, like Conner and Tanner) and misplaced suspicions.
Aside from the expected, ineloquent preaching about looking past stereotypes and racial tolerance, Perry also uses the plot to make a plea for “putting Christ back into Christmas.” This begins as a subplot, but overtakes the film in the last 10 minutes, despite the fact that Perry never elaborates on what “putting Christ back into Christmas” entails aside from reminding everyone that Christmas is a Christian holiday.
Style-wise, Perry seems to be stuck in 1931, and there’s an undeniable early-talkie charm to the film’s long takes, out-of-nowhere wipes, slightly mismatched reverse angles, just-a-tad-too-long cutaways, and stage-voice performances. (Abundant echoes—audible whenever the characters are standing in front of a metal surface—suggest that Perry has a thing against lavalier mics.) The oddness of Perry’s Madea movies owes less to incompetence than to eccentric working methods. The fact that scenes involving Madea tend to run long and are interspersed with generic reactions from other characters reveals that Perry improvises most of her dialogue in one-and-done takes, while everyone else in the cast sticks to a script. (Some of the film’s Madea improvs are even funny.) Perry’s sense of visual blocking is stubbornly old-fashioned, with above-the-waist wide shots intercut with close-ups in which only the speaking character is visible.
Considering Perry’s focus on off-color comedy and folksy “common sense,” it seems inevitable that he’d end up making a movie with Larry The Cable Guy, who plays Lacey’s father-in-law, Buddy. Like Madea, Larry The Cable Guy is a stage persona, a Southern redneck played by non-Southerner Daniel Whitney. (Whitney has never appeared on-screen using his real name or accent; his performances are always double performances, with Whitney playing Larry The Cable Guy playing a character.) The two characters effectively play off each other on-screen, though they produce a strange aftertaste, which seems inevitable in a film that positions two very fake stage personas as symbols of unchecked down-home authenticity.