When I say a Tyler Perry movie is especially good, I only really mean that in comparison to other Tyler Perry films. Even his very best films teem with nonsense that automatically disqualify them from typical quality standards. But once you get into Perry, you begin to develop certain expectations. Sometimes they are met. Sometimes they are not. A Madea Christmas, for the first time in several years, meets those expectations. This is a top tier Tyler Perry entry. It lacks most of his amoral insanity, but it fills that divot with lots of weird humor and one of the strangest bromances I've ever seen.
I don't really know where to begin with this movie other than to say it's a treasure trove for Madea enthusiasts, of which this site might have four, me included. Tyler Perry has not had an easy time figuring out the best way to use this character, partially because his comedy skills are so largely accidental and partially because he hates her. At first, she was just a loud but minor figure hanging out on the edge of melodramas that barely concerned her. Tyler Perry used her to get audiences to the theater, but gave them only a fraction of the character they actually wanted to see.
Madea's evolution from marquee cameo player to actual marquee star has been fascinating to watch. It took until Madea's Big Happy Family for Tyler Perry to finally get it right. But rather than repeat that film's formula, Tyler Perry now seems eager to mix Madea with the larger world. We saw her visit New York City and live with a bunch of white people in Madea's Witness Protection, but while that film isn't bad, necessarily, it often feels like Madea walking onto someone else's sitcom and not really holding her own.
Here he gives it another shot and gets the balance just right. In the same way Madea's Big Happy Family offers a 2nd draft version of what Tyler Perry attempted in Madea Goes to Jail, A Madea Christmas smooths out and executes the larger goals of he failed to reach with Madea's Witness Protection. All she did in New York was complain about how expensive everything was. Here she gets rural and accidentally walks in a Klan meeting, goddammit.
Plot-wise, A Madea Christmas provides a kind of racially reversed riff on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where this crazy (crazy crazy crazy) lady named Eileen drags Madea to Alabama (where everyone's accent, when they remember to have one, sounds like British people making fun of Little House on the Prairie) to surprise her daughter, Lacey, for Christmas. But because Eileen doesn't call ahead, her daughter has a rough time keeping her secret marriage to a white guy under wraps. This is important because Eileen is a full-blown racist. Meanwhile, the husband's redneck parents (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy) show up as well. They already know about the biracial couple because they are the warmest, most open and caring rednecks on earth.
Every Tyler Perry movie needs someone to hate, and ire-raising Tyler Perry characters come in only two flavors: Evil and stupid. A Madea Christmas kind of stalls out on the evil front, but we really get a dumb doozy when it comes to Eileen. And for the first time ever, the film seems to know she's nuts and declares open season on her as a result. Seriously, Madea just rails on this lady's obvious stupidity in scene after scene, and it's glorious. Tyler Perry has always entertained a bullying streak in his Madea films. He sets up hateful figures and we enjoy watching them get taken down by Madea's no-bullshit attitude. A Madea Christmas not only concentrates this very specific strength, but the film lets characters actually bond and become friends over their shared understanding of Eileen's insanity. This is important to me because I always long for Tyler Perry characters to communicate on this level, and this is the first film where they actually do.
Perhaps A Madea Christmas' greatest contribution to the Tyler Perry canon is the bromance that blossoms between Madea and Larry the Cable Guy. We've never really seen Madea have a friend before. I mean, she has friends, but she treats them all like shit. None of that negative energy hinders this particular union, however. Their every interaction boils down either to one laughing hysterically at the other's joke or both of them agreeing with each other's folksy platitudes.
This may seem like a little thing, but it's really entertaining to watch two people with such aggressive comic styles get along so well. Because the relationship involves Larry the Cable Guy it offers people who hate Tyler Perry yet another easy out, which is too bad. I know Larry the Cable guy is one of the more reprehensible comedians out there, but in the context of the film he (and Kathy Najimy) exudes nothing but warmth and patience. Yes, his introduction involves a joke where he grabs his fat belly and says "This here's my foreskin!" but he also displays unconditional kindness to his black daughter-in-law. For instance, he doesn't even flinch to learn Lacey's a vegetarian, though he does respond by first confusing vegetarianism with a religion and then correcting himself by saying, "Oh, she's a tofu-farter!" By the end of the film, I'm totally ready to hang out with him, too. That belly-fat/foreskin joke is honestly my kind of low-brow absurdity.
A Made Christmas is basically a TV movie, and it has TV-level conflict which demands a TV-level attention span. (It even has TV-level Christmas themed star wipe scene transitions!) This lack of real drama is a new approach for Perry, one he also utilized in Madea's Witness Protection. I kind of enjoy the sweetness that comes through as a result, though it robs these films of their extra insane plot twists. In fact, Tyler Perry actually includes one big revelation just so he can immediately poke fun at his over reliance on the trope. This unexpected bit of self-commentary is kind of the biggest reveal of all.
As usual, the film is full of stupid stuff you have to make peace with. There's a whole thing with Lacey's little Alabama town where they're economically starving because of a newly built dam and get a bail-out donation that not only demands their Holiday Jubilee go completely secular, but also somehow comes from the same company that erected the dam in the first place. Like a lot of Tyler Perry plot stuff, it falls apart as soon as you hear it.
But, you know. These aren't movies so much as community theater productions that somehow got onto the big screen. Particularly in a Madea film, it's a waste of time to pick on this or that element that fails to live up to reality when reality probably isn't what Tyler Perry's going for in the first place. Especially with so many fascinating bits of Tyler Perry's personal philosophy going on in the textual foreground. This review is already way too long and I haven't even gotten into the racial stuff, Tyler Perry's ever-confusing relationship with religion, or his recent obsession with subplots about beta males who must learn to grow a spine.
Overall, A Madea Christmas lacks heft, but it's really funny and contains a lot of curious elements that I can't wait to further explore. Like its closest companion, Madea Witness Protection, it manages to entertain despite a clear attempt on Tyler Perry's part to widen his fan base with mainstream concessions. Luckily, he's far too weird to ever truly crossover, so his efforts end up being mostly harmless and in fact force him to exercise new muscles, which is always interesting to see.