Told she’ll be paid $5 for each child she greets as a department-store Santa in Atlanta, Mabel “Madea” Simmons (Tyler Perry) abruptly dismisses the kids’ Christmas wishes. “You want a TV? You need a J-O-B.” “You wanna stocking full of candy? How ’bout I give you a stocking full o’ Jenny Craig?” And to the crowd of onlookers: “Y’all been to the North Pole? So have I.” Standing and grinding her hips: “I been on the pole, ha ha.”
While the teacher is away, grandma Madea commandeers a small classroom of sixth-graders in tiny Bucktussle, Ala., with her own rendition of the Nativity story. Seems “the Virgin Mary J. Blige” and her husband “Joe” came to “the holy city of Birmingham” and couldn’t find a room “at the Ramada Inn. Even Motel 6 wouldn’t leave the light on for them.” It’s all in the Bible, in “Second Deuteronimo.”
Madea meets a garrulous Southerner (Larry the Cable Guy) who cheerfully asks, “Did you hear the one about the two rabbis and the black dude…?” The 6-foot-5 lady of color stares him down and shuts him up with: “Did you hear the one about the stray bullet that killed the redneck for tellin’ the one about the two rabbis and the black dude?”
(FIND: Tyler Perry on TIME’s list of 25 Most Important Movies About Race)
And those, folks, are the complete comic highlights of Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, latest in the writer-director-producer-star’s series of low-budget, homemade, Christian-themed movies that have earned nearly $700 million at the domestic box office in less than a decade. An improvement over Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family and Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection only in that the title dispenses with the double possessives, this eighth Madea movie is pretty lame even by Perry’s slapdash standards.
Before making a movie, Perry will write the project as a play with music and take it on the road. On stage is where the true Madea lives — where Perry can dominate in his drag-queen housedress, where stereotypes can be big and brassy, where the actors proclaim their personalities to the third balcony and burst into gospel songs to touch desperate or soaring emotions and lift the crowd. Two years ago, Perry toured with A Madea Christmas, which brings a ritzy family of Cape Cod buppies into collision with their down-home kin — “the black Beverly Hillbillies.” With a dozen vigorous or venal characters blasting away and exposing dread family secrets, the Madea Christmas show is a calculatingly naïve, occasionally spectacular entertainment, well worth catching on Amazon or Netflix.
(READ: Corliss’s review of A Madea Christmas – The Play)
That churning gloss on A Christmas Carol is a crisp blueprint for a Tyler Perry holiday movie. Bizarrely, the author ignored it and started over, writing a new script with the same title. Quitting the Santa job in her trademark huff, Madea accompanies her niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) on a surprise Christmas visit to Eileen’s school-teacher daughter Lacey (Tika Sumpter) down in Bucktussle. Along for the ride is Lacey’s long-ago beau Oliver (JR Lemon), now a public-relations magnate and, in Eileen’s blacks-only view, Lacey’s ideal husband-to-be. They don’t know that Lacey is already happily married to Conner (Eric Lively), a nice, white agricultural scientist, and that Conner’s parents Kim (Kathy Najimy) and Buddy (Guy) will also dropping in for the holidays. When they convene, everyone’s afraid to tell Eileen, who’s thought to be ripe for a heart attack.
That’s the frayed tightrope on which everyone lurches in this Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas Dinner. Two subplots involve a $100,000 gift to the cash-strapped town, from a shady corporation Oliver represents, and Lacey’s most adorable student, Bailey (Noah Urrea), whose angry dad (Chad Michael Murray) has made a habit of bullying his wife (Alicia Witt), Conner and the rest of Bucktussle. Perry packs in a car crash and rescue, revelations about a black woman raped by a white man, a meeting of the modern Ku Klux Klan and a one-sided debate over whether the town square can have a crèche. The Holy Family wins that one in about five seconds.
(READ: Richard Zoglin on the Tyler Perry stage experience)
Yet somehow the enterprise comes off as arid and inert. Madea, deprived of her usual teeming brood, must lay her famous sass on distant in-laws and total strangers. She gets in a few cracks about the deep South — “Last time I was in Alabama I was chained to Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson” — and the nocturnal inconstancy of her bowels. But the focus is on Eileen’s blinkered opinion of integrated marriage. (Madea calls her a “beast of the Southern wild.”) A black character, not a white, is the main racist this time; and her anxious animosity all but drowns Madea’s famous sass. She’s less the central force than a sidelines kibitzer.
Conversations in Perry’s plays and films are often choleric free-for-alls, with Madea as rhetorical judge and executioner, not the more intimate groupings of two or four combatants here. The relatively skimpy dramatis personae — three main couples and a few marplots, with Caucasian actors in the majority — makes this the first Madea movie that looks underpopulated. Oddly too, the cast contains no members of Perry’s stage and screen stock company; their familiar energy is missed. So are the play’s songs, which can transform Perry’s plot and dialogue clichés into powerful musical statements.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Madea’s Big Happy Family – The Movie)
Among the new cast, Sumpter is pretty and gracious. Najimy nicely parries Kim’s good will against Eileen’s dogmatic imposition, though she’s not sure whether Madea’s name is pronounced “Media” or “Mandela.” Witt, forever cherished as Christopher’s “D-Girl” in The Sopranos, has a few sharp scenes as Bailey’s mom. Larry the Cable Guy, in a small step down from starring as Mader in Cars and Cars 2, insinuates a touch of his own comedy into one scene out in the cold, acknowledging, “My wiener’s an innie right now.”
Perry allows Medea a few interludes, shot in long takes to catch the improvs, but the badinage falls flat. The only bright thing about the movie is the star’s blindingly white teeth, which, if he smiles, could be seen from space. And the one fascination of A Madea Christmas is how little care the country’s most popular and powerful indie filmmaker takes in shaping his own material. It’s as if he looked at the low bar set by his earlier films and decided the challenge was to Limbo under it.