The story centers around a woman named Shirley (Loretta Devine), a mother who has been battling cancer in secret from her 3 kids. She’s not upset about this however, because she’s strong in her faith and is grateful for the days God already gave her on this earth. But now she wants to gather all of her family together to tell them the news at once – by having them over for dinner together. The biggest problem with this is that they all have their own back plots that keep them from enjoying each others’ company. Kimberly is married to Isaiah Mustafa (huge upgrade of this character from the stage play) but she is consistently snapping at him and her family when she is “bothered” by them. Anytime she’s near them, she turns instantly bitter – especially to her mother. Tammy is married to Harold, a wimp of a man who’s let his marriage and parenting fall to crap and needs to stand up & be a man. Then there’s the youngest, Byron (Shad Moss), who’s trying to leave his drug-selling/ex-convict past behind to move on with his girlfriend and his son, but is constantly being thwarted by his [HILARIOUS] baby mama. This chick goes to every extreme possible to make Byron’s life a living hell, the worst of which is the famous “BY-REEEEEEEEEEEN” siren. (My name being often confused for Byron, don’t think I haven’t paid for this.)
Shirley’s first attempt at getting everyone together falls apart when the daughters all explode at each other over their issues with each other, but this is just the start. When Shirley finds out her illness is terminal, Madea steps in to help her get them together one last time. Madea goes on a driveby to collect the kids again, by any means necessary. By this point, all the crap has pretty much hit the fan (Byron got arrested & lost his job, Harold’s kids and marriage are falling apart as he gets wimpier and wimpier, and Isaiah Mustafa is appalled that Kimberly won’t help her mother bail Byron out of jail). Once they’re finally together, we get the scene where all the secrets are dropped on the table. Kimberly is Byron’s mother after being raped as a child, and Shirley raised him all these years without ever telling him or Isaiah Mustafa. Mustafa has grown sick of how terrible she treats him and her son, and leave her after dinner. Byron leaves to get back into the drug game after feeling defeated from trying to do the right thing and still coming up short. On the positive, Madea convinces Harold to stand up to Tammy, and for Tammy to stop treating him so rudely, and for both of them to actually raise their kids. Once Shirley dies, all but Kimberly are there as she tells them to love each other after she is gone, and from here, Madea gathers them all after the funeral to give them the final pieces of advice to adjust their lives & move forward. Kimberly must let go of all the hurt/pain, and accept Isaiah Mustafa’s love. Byron’s baby mama must stop using her energies to run his life, and he needs to continue to stay on the right path – which also means his new gold-digging girlfriend has to go.
1) Isaiah Mustafa! I know it’s an odd compliment to start with, but he is seriously one of the coolest things about this film. Not only is his presence cool – boy, does he really deliver in his role! He was a great mentor-figure for Byron.
2) It was fun to see David & Tamela Mann. Even if they had nothing to do with this (and we did get a tacked-on PSA from their What’s Done in the Dark backplot), it did lead to a fun final scene with Maury. By now, Tamela had become a pretty good actress.
3) The Baby Mama – Good LORD is this actress brilliant. Especially in her introduction with Madea at the drive-thru. To think, this scene happened because TP didn’t get what he wanted one day at a fast-food restaurant one day. (Wait, he advocated for black male health…what was he doing there? Oh well. We got to see Madea drive into a restaurant, I’m not complaining.)
4) Madea slapping Harold’s kids – We’ve all seen those kids who we just WISH we could check (right in the face). This is almost up there with the restaurant scene.
5) Kimberly missing her mother’s death – this is a dark plus, but hear me out. It really does add to the depth of her character in a way that makes sense. When her family calls, she’s always “too busy” and making excuses. But this time it was too late, and it throw her bitterness through a terrible loop. This was a pretty deep and realistic twist that I thought added to her character/story.
6) CHANDRA CURRELLY SINGING AT THE FUNERAL. So glad she was allowed to be in the movie in this capacity. In the play, her being to do this song and have us watch her ascend into heaven was the most (literally) uplifting musical moments to show Christians why death is not something to fear if you’re prepared for the eternity with Christ. (Listen to it here Chandra Currelly: Heaven Waits for Me)
WHAT DOESN’T WORK:
1) Aunt Bam…I’m sorry, she gets in the way of this movie for me. It would have been better if Madea was her one friend/foil throughout the show, and I really like Cassi Davis…but she tries to implement a lot of comedy stylings that fit so much better on the stage when you have an audience to work off of their energies and a chance to improvise as much as you want. For example, the opening scene consists of way too much Aunt Bam commentary that slows the story down for 5 mins. before it can start…and it’s just not as funny here as it is on the stage play with Chandra Currelly as Shirley. In general, she really doesn’t add as much here because the movie’s story and characters have so much going on that there’s really no room for Bam to do what her character is supposed to do – add comic relief. Madea does this well enough on her own without her. Therefore, all she really does for this movie is slow it down; and I know the jokes in a stage play have the room for this, but in a movie it just really gets in the way. Also, I know people find the weed jokes funny…for some reason, whenever he uses them in his movies (i.e. Uncle Joe…ugh, we’ll get to him in another review), I can’t help but cringe at how long they go on and how unfunny they are.
2) Stage play-movie adaptation. Other than Aunt Bam’s existence in the movie being the biggest example, there are just some things that don’t transfer from the stage to the movie so well because of the different dynamics. Stage shows are restricted in a sense b/c of the space, what characters can get away with, etc. but you can also work off of an audience’s energy as a part of your performance in the moment, which often happens in a TP stage show. In a movie, however, you are given more space to tell a story in more dynamics ways than you can on stage due mainly to resources (when you boil it all down). Madea ranting on stage about sagging pants to an audience works way better than her halting the plot to do it in the movie to Byron.
3) The tacked-on health PSA. TP had the best of intentions in his plays, TV shows and movies when he would try to throw in health messages about diabetes, colonoscopies, etc. However, whereas with What’s Done in the Dark which took place in a hospital that served this as a plot, or an episode of House of Payne that focused on this, Big Happy Family just throws it in there with Brown & Cora, randomly, expecting us to remember it after everything else that happens. (I’m sorry, but I won’t leave the theater thinking about prostate exams after everyone else is yelling “BY-REEEEEEEN!!!”) What’s worse is that the movie goes from all that health talk to us later seeing Aunt Bam & Uncle Joe being allowed to get as high as they want, and the movie allows this because they are “comic relief”…and old. Old, funny people on weed is funny, I guess.
4) Lauren London as the gold-digging GF – okay, she’s not terrible. She’s just blander than rice on a paper plate. The chick in the play was kind of overacting, especially towards the end. London looks like she’s probably enjoying being rude, but it comes off as underacting by far. I love laughing at when Byron gets arrested, and Shirley is at the end of her rope – and then London is standing there, and Shirley asks “what are you doing here?” to which London ever-so-blankly replies “huh.” And that’s the end of it. Next scene.
5) Loretta Devine as Shirley – Now, I have NOTHING against Loretta Devine. I think she’s a fine, talented actress who’s had a lot of deserved success. But this is one role that I don’t think she quite fit. Chandra Currelly, hands-down one of the BEST actors/singers TP ever hired, did a great job of portraying a mother who remains strong in her faith even at death’s door as she prepares to leave a family who is hurting and full of secrets. Even when things were at their breaking point, she held it together the best she could, while still being believable of a mother in these circumstances. Loretta Devine seems to start this way at the beginning, but soon goes from being deeply troubled to weak & desperate. By the time Kimberly rejects her at her doorstep, I felt more desperation in a truly saddening way, and it just made me dislike Kimberly, not feel sorry for her and await her turnaround. Is this more realistic to some? Perhaps, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I did appreciate in the play how Madea was not the only strong character – Shirley was the strong woman of faith. The movie takes that away from me, and it was a major issue to the story in my opinion in terms of the prospect of hope. But maybe that’s just me.
6) Jokes – A few jokes have setups that are too long for a punchline that wasn’t worth it. This happens in comedy movies often, to be sure. Aunt Bam definitely has a few. Most would have been funnier in the play. The WORST ONE…is Uncle Joe’s fat joke to Bam, Brown, Cora & Madea all being on the kitchen floor.
7) Byron’s lecture – I’m sorry, but I hate how the movie turns on Byron when Madea approaches him towards the end. She chastises him for not doing the right thing and turning to drug dealing, because this is what happened in the play. However, this Byron is different – we actually watch him TRY his hardest for a long time to do the right thing no matter how tough the pressure, and it isn’t until 2/3 into the movie when he finally breaks and starts to sell drugs to make money. However, he gets no credit for his good attempts before this. That’s really frustrating when I was led rooting for this character. Also, Shirley defends his arrest to Kimberly by saying “a mother knows”…but earlier when he tried to tell her that he WASN’T in trouble, she didn’t believe him. This just further proves how confusing Loretta Devine is in this role…or the writing. I’m not sure. You decide.
So overall, yes, this movie does have it’s problems. In general, the story and what it was trying to do is great. Some of these actors really match the story that TP was trying to tell here, and the film does a good job of showing a dysfunctional family trying to learn how to improve themselves and embrace each other in spite of everything surrounding them. It pays a good homage to it’s influence, as mentioned earlier. There are some good key moments when I really believe/am rooting for these characters to get what they need. It’s worth a watch, mainly for Shad Moss, the Baby Mama, Isaiah Mustafa, and Chandra Currelly’s song. Otherwise, I’d say watch the play; this movie is not the best place to start to get to know Madea, however.
Let me know what you thought!