Monday, December 16, 2013

The Cinema File #284: "A Madea Christmas" Review

In my long and strange journey to become the internet's reigning expert on all things Madea, I've unexpectedly gone from an uninformed detractor to probably the closest thing you could call a Madea fan while still maintaining a respect for quality cinema. While I can't go so far as to call any of the movies featuring her good, they have all had at least the one saving grace in the Madea character herself, a refreshingly boisterous if somewhat rambling anti-heroine speaking truth to nonsense in a moral universe clearly tailor made to find her in the right. More often than not the black and white world she inhabits strains credulity and patience as lessons either heinous or obvious are wedged down the audience's collective throat, but then what better context is there for shallow platitudes and conditional unrealism than a Christmas movie?

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas finds our favorite crotchety matriarch on a trip down south to celebrate the holiday with her grand niece, whose recent secret marriage to a white farmer threatens to derail the festivities as cultural divisions mount. While it is perfectly legitimate to question whether this conflict is relevant to our modern, supposedly more enlightened era, the more intriguing part of it is that Perry would focus on it at all. I have always defended Perry at least against the charge of racial stereotyping of white people, which is often levied against him despite virtually no real examples of it in any of these movies. Yes, some, like Eugene Levy's bumbling banker were buffoons, but no more so than in any comedy, and none have ever been so evil as to merit the accusation of racist caricature. Though he deals with race, he rarely touches upon racism significantly, and yet here the first time he does it, the racist isn't the person you might suspect.

This is only one of the choices he makes that left me thinking this might be the first Madea movie I could actually say I unequivocally enjoyed. It would have been so easy for him to play into the role assigned to him by so many people who've never bothered to actually watch his films, painting broad racist southern whites victimizing impossibly noble black characters, but instead, with the exception of one insane and genuinely funny cutaway to a Klan meeting, the white people in this movie are the most sympathetic. When the husband's proudly redneck inlaws show up, they instantly accept their son's new wife despite her race, which doesn't sound all that impressive until you think about how much more narratively convenient it would have been to make them uncomfortable or equivalently racist. For a writer/director so often stymied by an impulse towards easy moral fixes, its at the very least a nice change of pace.

That's not to say that A Madea Christmas is particularly complex or subtle. Its still as silly and hamfisted as is typical for Perry's work, and probably the most poorly made on a technical level, complete with CGI Christmasy wipes between scenes with no regard for tone. That being said, because its all in the grand tradition of Christmas morality plays, it kind of works better than it ever has before, because you don't need it to conform to the real world with all its grey areas and substance. When the final conflict is resolved by the main character simply shaming the greedy corporation in front of news cameras, you might be tempted to roll your eyes knowing that this could never happen, but then you'd have to similarly dismiss the sacks of letters to Santa in Miracle on 34th St. or the passionate speech that saves the day in Its A Wonderful Life. I'm not saying that this movie is anywhere close to as good as those, but the tropes are what they are and the fact that oversimplification is Perry's default mode is happily lost in what amounts to a pleasantly inoffensive romp.

I firmly believe that there is a clear and stark line between bad and terrible that Perry often straddles, but I don't think there is any way to look at A Madea Christmas and honestly say it crosses it. If anything, it might just be the most entertaining and least aggravating Madea outing yet. Its certainly the funniest, which is to say the one that elicited in me the most unironic laughter. Even Larry the Freaking Cable Guy is charming, and any director able to pull that off while letting him get a reference to Prilosec OTC into dialogue no less has to have some talent as a director, wipes notwithstanding. I even missed the Santa's Lap sequence seen in the trailers but evidently cut from the film, which means I was literally sad that this Madea movie didn't go longer. Maybe I've just gone insane from too many of these movies, but I can't bring myself to hate this. For all its flaws, in a year with InAPPropriate Comedy and The Starving Games, being able to enjoy this one at all is something to be thankful for on Christmas.

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