Tyler Perry has become an industry unto himself by tapping into a deep strain of social conservatism in the African-American community that recoils from the excesses of hip-hop culture and wishes those kids would get off the lawn and pull up their damn pants. It’s easy to imagine a Death Wish-style revenge fantasy where Perry’s deranged geriatric, fat-suited avenger Madea takes to the streets with a shotgun to weed out hoodlums, punks, and various other disrespectful youngsters who back-sass their elders. Perry’s most famous creation plays both sides; she behaves with go-for-broke impulsiveness and the freedom of a kid, yet she’s always eager to put kids in their place.
Perry’s latest exercise in frenzied overexertion casts Loretta Devine as a matriarch too selfless to trouble her overflowing brood with the news that she’s dying of cancer, though her children are so busy dealing with their own issues, it’s unclear whether they’d have time to process the information anyway. Shad “Bow Wow” Moss co-stars as one of Perry’s signature saintly strivers, an ex-con afflicted with a nightmare baby-mama whose teasing pronunciation of his character’s name is the film’s primary running (and irritating) joke; he also has a nagging current girlfriend who wants him to do one last drug deal so he’ll be able to provide for her in the manner to which she would desperately like to become accustomed.
Late in the film, Perry’s title character delivers a piece of advice to a bullied husband that succinctly summarizes the film’s overarching ideology: Be the man. Everything in Madea’s Big Happy Family leads up to the climactic moment when a verbally abused husband finally musters up the courage—with an awful lot of encouragement from Madea, of course—to stand up for himself and be treated like a human being. Alas, Madea’s Big Happy Family is defined by a dearth of plausible human behavior; everything is pitched to jarring emotional extremes of good and evil, joy and pain, chitlin’-circuit broad comedy, and melodramatic speeches. To its credit, Madea’s Big Happy Family feels looser than some of Perry’s other films. Its ramshackle, improvisational feel suggests that even the actor who wrote the script still needs a way to make this fun for himself.