I’m grateful for Madea’s Big Happy Family, which—to be as objectively honest as possible—featured more than one whopping parallel to my personal life, and came into my life at precisely the day and time when I was most able to appreciate them. That said, Tyler Perry’s storytelling remains problematic: He’s all too ready to yuk it up over that which he later denounces (like the marijuana Cassie Davis’s pothead Aunt Bam hilariously chain smokes at every given opportunity), and his drama routinely lacks sufficient nuance, streamlining characters into stereotypes when there’s clearly more room for subtlety. At least here it’s free of the condescending conservatism that’s defined much of his past work, settling instead for what might be called common sense and apolitical human decency.
Loretta Devine plays Shirley, who learns at the film’s outset that her cancer has returned (what kind is never mentioned, only that she’s been battling it for seven years) and who hopes to gather her entire family together for dinner to let the sad news be known. Selfish behavior among her children and their respective spouses repeatedly prevents said meal from happening (whiffs of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), at which point Madea (Perry) takes it upon herself to gather the embittered spawn together for their mother’s dinner at nothing less than the threat of an ass whooping.
As someone whose own mother has grappled with the disease for nearly as long, Perry’s handling of the drama is an admirable example of soapy storytelling aimed at the sensibilities of the masses in the broadest sense, never less than sincere even when the players are reduced to one-note archetypes—particularly the film’s most villainous character, Shannon Kane’s ungrateful Kimberly. Paralleling the central drama is Madea’s epic battle against disrespect, primarily that ingrained in young people, but also that which unhappy couples pass on to their children through soft parenting.
Setting the tone is an opening set piece in which Madea—pissed off at the gum-chewing inattentiveness of a drive-thru attendant—plows her car through a fast-food restaurant, Terminator-style. Though Madea’s antics have come off as unforgivably selfish in the past (particularly distasteful in Madea Goes to Jail, which saw her rightfully thrown behind bars), here her bullheadedness is put to far more righteously judicial effect. Perry’s humor in these sequences is base bordering on the profound (damn, can his lips move), culminating in a slyly self-deprecating sequence in which Madea finds herself on the short end of the stick on the Maury talk show. Whether she’s smacking some sense into a wild child or telling her relatives like it is, her advice is shrill but sound, a dose of fork-in-your-eye gadflyism for a me-me-me society in dire need of it.