Review: Awkward Family Christmas, Now With Tyler Perry!

Much like Harry Potter and Stars Wars, Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise supposedly ran its course. But the man wouldn’t let us off that easy. 

Luckily, A Madea Christmas is more like the boisterous title character’s early outings rather than, say, Madea Goes to Jail. The absurd humor comes out in force, with a storyline that isn’t quite as eye-roll-inducing as many in Perry’s films. Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way: like all of Perry’s work, this is not a “good” movie. The plot and the acting tend toward the melodramatic and the stakes never seem terribly high. But if you embrace it for what it is – another comedy cobbled together from Tyler Perry’s favorite tropes – you’ll likely enjoy it.

The movie takes place in “Alabama,” an apparently monolithic place filled with uneven accents and a hatred of education and industry. (Luckily, at one point someone mentions that Jasper is nearby, so I did figure out where they were.) Perry grounds the main story about an interracial relationship in the solid context of a small town suffering from economic hardship.

Lacey (Tika Sumpter) is a teacher working in a rural town when her mother (Anna Maria Horsford, whose every word drips with contempt for everyone around her) arrives from Atlanta for a surprise Christmas visit. As quickly becomes clear, Lacey has eloped with Conner (Eric Lively), a white college classmate, whose own parents (Kathy Najimy and Larry the Cable Guy) arrive.

You can see where this is going: Lacey’s mother expects her to reunite with her old boyfriend, a successful black businessman, while Conner waits for Lacey to finally tell the truth. Madea, Lacey’s great aunt, maintains a ridiculous running commentary throughout.

Meanwhile, a more complex, if still heavy-handed, subplot unfolds. Lacey tries to help the town keep its Christmas Jubilee by contacting her ex (who contacts her mother and sets the whole thing in motion). She faces skepticism and even outright hostility from some of the local farmers, namely Chad Michael Murray’s Tanner, who bullied Conner as a kid and whose bullied son is Lacey’s star student. It’s almost moving at times to see these people try to stay afloat after a new dam has all but ruined them. The actors in these minor roles express a perpetual anxiety that shines through, even if their performances are, for the most part, simply adequate.

Like all Tyler Perry movies, A Madea Christmas is more than a little cheesy. Scenes transition with images of Christmas bells and, amazingly, no one has any hard feelings at the end. Fortunately, it also features a number of laugh-out-loud moments, including a classic Madea retelling of a Bible story and a couple of gags involving the KKK. Larry the Cable Guy’s Buddy develops a kind of bromance with Madea. The two play off of each other hilariously, bantering with racially and sexually charged jokes. The lack of political correctness works, though it hasn’t been refreshing since we first met Madea half a dozen movies ago (not to mention the stage plays).

Far and away, the most challenging part (perhaps the only challenging part) is the approach to race. Lacey’s mother strongly opposes her relationship with a white man. Conner’s parents, however, claim to have raised him colorblind and embrace Lacey immediately. What no one mentions, of course, are the elements of privilege at play. In an apparently exclusively white town, Conner’s parents can easily say race doesn’t matter. Lacey and her mother, on the other hand, come from racially diverse cities. We can assume from their worries about interracial relationships that they have experienced and/or witnessed racism in their lives. It’s not so easy for them to write race off as a social construct.

All the same, I can appreciate Perry’s pointed criticism of black distrust of whites, just as he has acknowledged the opposite in other works. It’s not new ground, but it complements the jokes. Perry often touches on social issues – such as race, physical and sexual violence, and class – in his films. Hopefully he’ll be able to deal with them more directly and effectively in the future.

A Madea Christmas exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. The Madea character has struck me as tired and repetitive lately, but this time the shtick worked. Having a comedian opposite Perry improved the comic delivery. Moreover, the subplot strengthened the film in a way I haven’t seen in Perry’s work since the corporate maneuvering in The Family That Preys.

Tyler Perry, to me, is like sauerkraut. I know it isn’t good exactly, but something about it works, and I rarely decline it. For fans of Madea who still enjoy the character, this film is worth a rental. It’ll make you laugh, and, if you want, it can make you think a little, too. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but it gets the job done.

Rating: 2/4

MPAA Rating: (PG-13), for sexual references, crude humor and language

Run Time: 1 hr. 45 min

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