"Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas" opens with Madea (Tyler Perry) starting a new job in what appears to be modern day Atlanta. She's to be a greeter at a high-end department store, all dressed up as Santa (sans beard) for the part. To say she's awful at her given task would be an understatement. In fact, by comparison, she makes Billy Bob Thornton's "Bad Santa" look like a bastion of customer service. It feels as though the only reason she was hired in the first place was because of some help from her niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford). Meanwhile, in small-town Alabama, Eileen's daughter Lacy (Tike Sumpter) is a teacher in the midst of a crisis. Her elementary school is about to cancel the annual Christmas Jubilee due to budgetary constraints, and she's also got a student in her class, Bailey (Noah Urrea), who is the victim of bullying. For good measure, there's a bit of passive racism going down in the form of Bailey's father, Tanner (Chad Michael Murray), which will naturally all come to a head at a pivotal moment. How will these two plots possibly be melded together? Why, of course when Eileen decides to visit her daughter Lacey for Christmas, enlisting great aunt Madea as a travel companion in the process.
Plot firmly in place, there's no denying "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas" has a brutal opening segment. There seems to be genuine confusion about what each early scene is meant to accomplish, and for minutes on end Madea merely plays word association games in moments that come off as completely unscripted … and also completely unfunny. Examples of this randomness include Madea mistaking the word "apparel" for "a pear", "Oliver" for "olive oil", and "Conner" for "coroner." I'm not sure precisely where the comedy in such moments was to be derived, short of us all just pretending that partially senile six-foot tall ladies are inherently funny, but unfortunately this is the method employed to get in our good graces. Kudos to writer/director Tyler Perry for creating an atmosphere where he was "trying something", but negative points for said attempts failing miserably.
Thankfully, this nonsense is not to be our total lot with "Madea", because things get better, and near the end the film is truly humming along with purpose. Crazy, right? For oddly enough, the very engine that delivers "Madea Christmas" from doom is the same factor that placed it in the penalty box in the first place, good ol' Madea. As Eileen and Madea visit Lacey it becomes apparent that Lacey may have fallen for a caucasian suitor, a detail Aunt Madea quickly picks up on, while Momma Eileen remains clueless. Connor (Eric Lively) is ostensibly living with Lacey to help her with "the farm", but anyone with eyes can tell there's a bit more going on. And when Connor's parents visit for Christmas, highlighted by Larry the Cable Guy as his father, the fireworks soon start, as, wait for it, Eileen pretty much comes off as a huge racist. Combined with Tanner back in town that means we've got an older black woman who doesn't like whitey and a younger white guy who doesn't like black folk. Script balance! Luckily, for levity's sake, Madea is the moderator of this circus, and her up-front mannerisms and folky chemistry with Larry the Cable Guy actually lead to some tender and laugh-worthy moments. Given the genesis of the story, I'd say that's pretty much a Christmas miracle right there.
Really, the only thing that keeps "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas" from being a legitimately good holiday film is a tragically terrible B-story (the entire "bullied Bailey" angle), those aforementioned opening missteps, and a hopelessly contrived "character redemption" story arc. When Madea gets away from ad libbing comedy roads to nowhere, instead making keen observations on race, human nature, and relationships, the character is actually quite strong and well considered. The notion that there's not a villain, no truly bad people, and plenty of love to go around in the world of "Madea" may at first seem too simple a vehicle for effective storytelling, but chuckle-inducing observations about topics movies are generally loath to tackle deserves a little holiday cheer too. Come for the Madea, but stay for the baked-in positivity of a "forcefully" smushed together family Christmas.
SCORE: 6.5 / 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and this is his first "Madea" movie. Should he see the rest? Or would he be lost?