Shirley is a good woman. She's patient and kind and faithful, the sort of person who'd bake a batch of cookies for the neighbors just for the fun of it or spend her nights sitting with a sick friend just for the needfulness of it. When her doctor told her that her cancer had come back, she smiled and thanked the man.
"Every day that God gives us is a gift," she told him. "And when He stops giving it to me, I get to be with Him."
Makes you wonder how such a good woman wound up with such wayward kids.
Kimberly, the eldest, is doing just fine on the surface. She's got a beautiful house, the Old Spice guy as a husband (really!) and a child of her own. But she's so successful that she doesn't have time for pesky addendums like extended family, so when she goes over to Shirley's house it's like waiting in the dentist's office before a root canal. Middle sis Tammy has time for her mama, but her own family is a mess: She can't stand her husband, and her kids are, to be blunt, brats. Byron, the 18-year-old "baby" of the family, already has a baby, a police record (for selling drugs) and terrible taste in women.
With a houseful of prodigal children, what's a mother to do? Not much, in Shirley's case. In many ways they all stopped listening to their mother years ago, and Shirley well knows that she won't be around much longer to try to guide them anyway. With the cancer spreading quickly, Shirley's ambitions are modest: Get the family together one last time for dinner so she can let her brood know all at the same time that she's dying.
But can she get them to stop fighting long enough to tell them?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Clearly the film's title, Madea's Big Happy Family, is a big fat deliberate lie. The family's not Madea's and it's far from happy. But in spite of Shirley's brood's practically tsunamic behavior, she herself embodies a sense of strength and grace. Her Aunt Bam says that Shirley was "a horse" growing up, able to pull any load or carry any burden. And even now her own well-being seems like something of an afterthought for her—insignificant compared to the welfare and future of her children. And she makes it clear that she loves them all, even when it seems for all the world like some don't love her back.
Shirley's very upset when she hears that Byron might be selling drugs again. Byron insists he's not, pleading with Shirley to believe him. And, after some time, Shirley does. "I looked into his eyes," she says. "A mother knows." While a mother doesn't always know—the world is filled with moms who've believed their untrustworthy children—there's something moving about Shirley's faith in her son; she believes in him when everyone else has written him off. And that's one of the very cool things about mothers.
Byron, for his part, is trying to stay on the straight and narrow—for his mother and, more importantly, for his own son. "I just want my son to know I'm doing the right thing," he says.
In her own extravagantly unique way, Madea offers to Shirley's family and to moviegoers a few pragmatic lessons on how to live your life, love your spouse and raise a family. She talks about the value of wives respecting their husbands and parents demanding respect from their children. She cautions that every marriage hits rough spots, and how important it is to push through those doldrums to find happiness on the other end. She's a big proponent of honesty, encouraging all manner of uncomfortable truth telling so families can move on.
We're repeatedly told how faithful Shirley is, how God is the source of both her strength and grace. She talks about her faith frequently … and she leaves this world with a sense of relief, not sadness. "Feel bad for somebody who don't know Jesus, all right?" she says on her deathbed. "I'm going home."
It's a point emphasized at Shirley's funeral, where the church congregation is told definitively in song that this isn't Shirley's end, it's her beginning. "If you knew where she was going," someone sings, "You wouldn't shed another tear."
Shirley's hardly the only believer here. Other characters also dispense spiritual reminders and exhortations. While many of these faith-tinged touchstones are far from serious moments of reflection—like when Aunt Bam mutters about how the Lord works in mysterious ways while she's under the influence of pot, or when Mr. Brown frantically begs for someone to pray for him—these irreverent uses still speak to the ease with which these folks embrace faith. As such, spirituality almost feels like it's a physical part of this Big Happy Family, like an understanding aunt: It's real and it's welcome … but it rarely seems to push anyone into taking stock of the inconsistencies in their lives. Religion is a comfort here; it's not corrective.
Madea prays on occasion, but she has very little interest in real faith. "You know God don't like me," she says. And explaining why it's OK for her to beat some sense into Shirley's kids, she spouts, "You been redeemed. I ain't."
Byron seems inclined to work out a deal with the Almighty: I'll do right, he tells his mother, but you gotta get well. At her mother's deathbed, Tammy wants everyone to pray for a miraculous healing.
Promiscuity is discussed. As is uncertain parentage. One of the film's major characters was raped by her uncle at age 12 and gave birth at 13—a family secret that comes to light at an apoplexy-inducing dinner.
Aunt Bam asks a doctor to rub her chest, then rubs her backside against his groin area to determine whether he's heterosexual: Bam concludes that he is. Tammy's husband, Harold, confesses that he's not had sex with his wife in over a year. ("I'd get more love in prison," he says.) Sabrina, who shares a son with Byron, wears very revealing clothing (showcasing her breasts and midriff).
Madea, after being ignored at a fast-food drive-thru, rams her Cadillac through the restaurant's window and pelts workers with food. She slaps several people, including one of Tammy's sons (repeatedly). She threatens most everyone with a variety of colorful warnings. She threatens Brown with a hammer. The film's opening sequence is filled with cartoon mayhem.
A running gag involves Joe (the old man who lives with Madea) concocting a rap song in his mind. It's titled "1-800-Choke-That-Ho," and whenever he hears about problematic females (of whom there are many), he chants the number and chuckles to himself. We see a bumper sticker with a modified version of Joe's "song" in an opening animation sequence (1-800-CHOKE-A-HO) and hear the fully realized rap during the closing credits.
Crude or Profane Language
Loads of casual curses, particularly "a‑‑," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑," the latter of which pops up more than 70 times. We also hear "b‑‑tard" and "p‑‑‑" (in a song) and around 10 misuses of God's name—more, if you count a number of throwaway "petitions" to the Almighty. The put down "retard" is used. "Ho" turns into something of a motif. Tammy flips off her husband.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Aunt Bam smokes marijuana, and while both Shirley and Madea tell her she should stop, the habit is treated about as seriously as a predilection for sugary sodas or afternoon soaps. She fills a hospital room with the smoke. And she says she wants her grave marked with marijuana plants and her wake to be a puff-and-pass party.
As mentioned, Byron was imprisoned for selling drugs. And while he's trying to put that behind him, Renee, his current love interest, begs him to return to the trade. When Byron's ex spreads rumors that he's back on the streets selling again—untrue at the time—Aunt Bam disrupts the pall that falls over the house by asking if she can purchase a dime bag.
Byron does end up falling back into the "business" for a time, then extricates himself again before film's end.
A reference is made to Bud Light.
Other Negative Elements
Big Happy Family is absolutely besotted with disrespect. Wives belittle and berate their husbands. (And with the exception of Shirley, the family's women are uniformly seen as the roots of the dysfunction.) Husbands order around their wives. (Deemed a good thing within this movie's strange ethos.) Children talk back to their parents and elders. (Usually considered to be a serious ill.)
Joe tells Madea and other relatives that they're abusing the floor joists because they're so big. Needing to undergo a colonoscopy and prostate exam (he mixes up the latter with the word prostitution at first), Brown lies to his doctor about his eating habits. References are made to stinky diapers, constipation and urination.
Madea tells Joe that his bookie called. Renee seems only interested in Byron as long as he has money.
If films can be equated to food, Tyler Perry's would be big steaming bowls of jambalaya—a diverse mixture of comedy and drama, of high message and low humor that critics can't stand but fans gobble up.
"The [real] critics are the million and four people that have left messages on my message board saying how much they enjoy it, or the almost 5 million people on Facebook who are always talking about what this moment did for them, or how this lesson taught them," Perry told The Wall Street Journal. "So it would be foolish for me to spend time trying to understand what will make a critic happy, and lose my audience. I think that would just be stupid, so I'd rather focus on the people that matter and not on the ones who don't."
That means it's almost irrelevant to talk about Perry's films in terms of whether they're good art or not. His fans want the melodrama, the sacred and profane mixed together … the jambalaya.
It also explains why Madea's Big Happy Family is spiced in such a way that could trigger heartburn. Messages conflict at every turn: Madea tells us how important it is to respect people—even as she belittles, insults and ridicules everyone. We're told that dealing drugs is bad—even as Aunt Bam smokes enough weed to pay off the loans on three street dealers' new boats. Madea tells Shirley it's not necessarily her fault that her children turned out so bad—then berates Tammy for how poorly behaved her children are.
Perry is clearly a clever guy, and he's well aware of this paradox. Some of it even feels purposeful onscreen as themes reverberate back and forth, with one batch of characters delving into the seriousness of a subject while another batch makes us laugh at it. As Shirley somberly deals with her cancer on one end of the story continuum, Brown has a "hilarious" cancer scare of her own. As Shirley's family tries to thread through some nasty paternity issues, Cora discovers Brown isn't her father.
That makes this a safe assertion: The stock characters Perry places around the edges of what he's trying to say aren't meant to be taken seriously. And you get the feeling that the director intentionally tosses these mixed messages up on the screen, confident that his audience will be able to separate the oysters from their shells.
But I'm not so sure it always works that way when the lights go down and the sodas come out.