‘A Madea Christmas’ Review
The night after watching Tyler Perry’s latest film, I had a dream where I was trying to do something, and never pulled it off – and that’s a lot of what 'A Madea Christmas' is like: a lot of effort that ends up being pointless, but feels exhausting anyway. That sounds crueler than I mean for it to, since I did in fact laugh at it, a lot, certainly more than I did in my dream. But as with most of Perry’s films, 'A Madea Christmas' is messy and half-baked, funny on purpose but especially when trying to be serious, and ultimately as convincing as a comically-oversized man, dressed up in drag, mispronouncing words in a way that no one possibly could.
Perry returns as Madea, this time helping out part time during Christmas at a department store where her niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) works as a supervisor. While Madea berates customers and aggravates management, Eileen learns that her daughter Lacey (Tiki Simpter) has decided not to come home to Atlanta for the holidays, instead choosing to stay in Alabama where she works as a teacher. Insisting that Lacey actually does want to be with her mother on Christmas, Eileen decides to pay her surprise visit, and brings Madea along for the ride.
Because Lacey hid from her mom the fact that she married her (white) college sweetheart Conner (Eric Lively), she asks her husband to pretend to be a farm hand. But when Conner’s parents Buddy (Larry the Cable Guy) and Kim (Kathy Najimy) show up, Lacey struggles to know what to do, not wanting to upset her mother with the truth or hurt the feelings of her husband or in-laws. Meanwhile, Lacey simultaneously finds herself caught in the middle of a kerfuffle at her school after landing a much-needed endorsement deal for the annual Christmas Jubilee that turns out to be from the same company that built a nearby dam and left the town in poverty.
As with almost all of Perry’s films, 'A Madea Christmas' is full of forced conflicts, clunky exposition and only the flimsiest of actual story lines. The fact that Lacey not only didn’t tell her mother about her relationship, but her secret marriage to a white man, is justified only by the silliest of reasoning – “I’ve never let my mother down in my life,” Lacey confesses. But given Eileen’s obnoxious, self-important presumptuousness, their estrangement is almost understandable, especially after it’s revealed that she’s been manipulating her daughter by lying about her father’s death and her own supposedly failing health. Indeed, it comes as no surprise why Lacey would move hundreds of miles away from Eileen and create a life for herself her mother would know nothing about.
What’s more troubling is the movie’s scarily provincial attitudes that almost all of the supporting characters have – that is, about themselves. While Conner is almost apologetic about all of the book learnin’ he did during college, his childhood bully Tanner (Chad Michael Murray) not only thinks he’s still gotta pound the nerds, but is suspicious of anyone, including his preteen son Bailey (Noah Urrea), who has any talents that don’t involve working on a plow. In fact, the myopia of the citizenry is fairly horrifying as a rule, especially given their fixation on throwing a Christmas Jubilee regardless whether or not the school can afford books and supplies that the children apparently desperately need. And while it seems preposterous for a company to sponsor a “Christmas Jubilee” and then insist that it focus only on secular icons, what’s worse is the fact that the town lawyer who looked over the contract never noticed this stipulation, and further, no one involved realized until after the money was spent that the funds came from a company everyone in town hates.
Ironically, however, there are tons of laughs in the film, although many of them are unintentional. Perry’s Madea continues to be the nucleus of his films’ appeal, an entirely secular, foul-mouthed heroine who sees things for what they are and speaks her mind to hilarious effect. Not that it wouldn’t be obvious to just about anyone, but Madea figures out early what’s going on with Lacey, Conner and his parents, and her ability to size up and shut down Eileen provides the film with a necessary and welcome burst of common sense amidst the rest of the story’s unreasonable and unrealistic reactions. And even if Perry too often indulges his own performance with improvisational asides, his scenes offer a levity, and a clarity, that keep proceedings from getting too bogged down in one-dimensional melodrama.
As Conner’s parents, on the other hand, Larry the Cable Guy and Najimy are terrific, playing along effortlessly with Perry’s Madea as a tolerant couple who are really trying to do their best to accommodate their daughter-in-law, despite the increasing unreasonableness of her mother. Managing to never seem too smart for their small-town life while evidencing an open-mindedness that feels fully believable, the duo offers an effective counterpoint to Eileen that actually makes the story’s resolution feel convincing.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the conclusion of the film is simultaneously pat and totally absurd – grievances are resolved, all problems are solved, and happiness is abruptly achieved. Lacey’s “plan” to deal with the evil developers is about as ridiculous and unbelievable as one could imagine, but should a public-announcement tactic like that work, I want to say that I’m grateful to my editor for agreeing to pay me a year’s salary just for this one review.
Nevertheless, amidst the movie’s plaid-obsessed costumes, its inexplicable hirings and firings – for some reason, the mayor fires a teacher at one point – and its hilariously elevated motivations for intolerance, 'A Madea Christmas' latest manages to keep audiences entertained, even if it’s only because they’re gobsmacked at what they’re watching.
'A Madea Christmas' is in theaters now.
Todd Gilchrist is a film critic and entertainment journalist with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Boxoffice Magazine, Movies.com, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies blog, and IGN.com.