Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tyler Perry is bad at math

Nope, this is not just an opportunity to take an easy potshot at a sometimes easy target.

In fact, I'm going to start today's post by praising Madea's Big Happy Family, the latest entry in Tyler Perry's series of Madea movies. A movie I pilloried in this space based on my perception of self-loathing in its catchphrase "Good afternoont" (see post here) was actually one of the most purely entertaining Perry movies I've seen. In fact, the Madea character herself, who has frequently caused me fits, may have been my favorite thing about it. Best use of the character yet, I say.

I wasn't planning to fit this movie in before my year-end rankings close (January 24th), but I happened across it at the library and needed something to watch at the gym. I'm glad to say that it did one better than helping me get through my exercise -- I was actually laughing, regularly, and when not laughing, I was enjoying the drama surrounding social issues. (Perry is known for alternating wildly between tones in his movies, and this one was no exception.) The cast was uniformly strong, but the character that made me laugh the most was the spiteful "baby mama" of Bow Wow's character, played by Teyana Taylor. Whenever Taylor says his name -- Byron -- she draws out the last syllable for the next ten seconds:






I don't know, it just made me laugh.

(For the record, Bow Wow is now crediting himself as Shad "Bow Wow" Moss.)

However, I do have some nits to pick about Perry's ability with numbers, especially when he's casting actors to fill out the seemingly limitless branches of Madea's family tree. Specifically the ages of the actors, and the likelihood that they could be parents and children to each other.

I'm looking at two relationships in the movie in particular, and before I go on, I'll give you a spoiler alert, since not everything about the nature of these relationships is known at the beginning of the movie.

There. Have all the Tyler Perry fans who haven't yet seen this movie left the room?

The biggest surprise reveal in the movie is that Byron and what he thought was his sister Kimberley (Shannon Kane) are actually mother and son. She got pregnant when she was 13, so her mother (the great Loretta Devine) raised the baby as her own baby.

The thing is, The Artist Formerly Known as Bow Wow (and Lil Bow Wow before that) is 24, while Kane is only 25.

It's one thing to say that baby-faced Shad Moss can play younger than his age, which is nothing new for actors. Hell, Michael J. Fox was still playing teenagers when he was 40. But this movie doesn't present Byron as a teenager -- he's definitely in the workforce, or at least trying to be (he loses his job at one point during the movie). And so it's quite another thing to tell a beautiful actress like Kane that she can play ten years older than she really is. That kind of thing doesn't usually go over well with actresses -- or anyone in the movie business, come to think of it.

But that's probably not the strangest parent-child age relationship in the movie. The movie also features a mostly separate plot about a character who just goes by the name Brown (David Mann) and the character who is allegedly his daughter, Cora (played by gospel singer Tamela Mann). ("Allegedly" because this parentage is not straightforward either.)

There are three very strange things about having these characters play father and daughter:

1) Both actors are exactly 45 years old.

2) For reasons known only to Perry, Cora's age is actually given in the movie, and she is supposed to be 58 years old. So not only is she also playing at least ten years older than she actually is, but that means that David Mann is playing 30 years older than he actually is, if you average out the potential ages he was when he fathered her, erring on the side of making him younger, and call him 20.

3) David Mann and Tamela Mann are actually married in real life, which is probably part of the reason Perry did it, as an inside joke.

Of course, Perry himself is only 42, and his Madea character is supposed to be in at least her mid-70s, seeing as how she's Cora's mother.

Now, if we are going to proceed from the assumption that Perry was trying to be at least somewhat realistic, there are two things we can conclude:

1) There is a somewhat crude if ultimately complimentary saying about black people, which is "Black don't crack." Which, unpacked, is supposed to indicate that African Americans don't show signs of aging as quickly as those from other races -- their skin does not "crack." If you are to believe this notion, you could say that Perry is either using this notion to his advantage to cast by skill set rather than age appropriateness, or simply making fun of the notion.

2) Perry's movies are all about uncovering the pernicious underbelly of the African American experience in the United States -- when they're not all about broad physical humor, that is -- so the young age at which many African American girls become mothers could be one of the notions he's trying to wrestle with. Actors really can be close in age to each other, and play parent and child, if that parent him or herself was only a child when he or she became a parent.

But really, this level of analysis is probably not necessary at all. Cinema is all about illusion, and these days, actors can play a lot older than they are (through makeup) or younger than they are (through digital enhancement) in a way they couldn't in the past. Why be limited by age considerations if you know you have an actor who is right for the part? As long as the viewer isn't distracted, you're in the clear.

I guess I was distracted -- enough to write this post, anyway. But I still liked the movie plenty well. I went in with my arms crossed, and I came out with them open.

Before I leave you for this Friday, I do have one final question:

What the hell am I supposed to call this movie?

I am currently listing it as Madea's Big Happy Family in my Most Recently Seen section to the right. However, there's ample evidence that the official title is Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, and that's how I first listed it when I updated my blog last night after seeing it.

What a tongue twister. It's terrible to have those two words with apostrophes right next to each other, but it is in keeping with the naming convention for the last however-many Perry movies. The last two I saw before this I refer to as Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys and Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns. But that apostrophe situation gave me pause this time around, and I chose to use an earlier naming convention for this one. Namely, when Madea's Family Reunion came out back in 2006, Perry's name was not part of the title, either officially or unofficially. At some point along the way, however, he took a lesson from Bram Stoker's Dracula and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and got on board with full authorship as part of the title.

Since I really don't want to include his name in the title this time around (because of the grammatical awkwardness), I'm seeking any excuse not to. However, most sources do seem to list it as Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, while Madea's Big Happy Family is the name of the stage play that inspired the movie. To confuse matters, the wikipedia entry for the movie is listed under Madea's Big Happy Family, but the first sentence of the entry calls it Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family.

Don't be surprised if I've changed my mind again by the time you read this.


Mike Lippert said...

I remember in my review of Drive when I asked if movies have gotten to the point of badness where we'll just blindly praise one that so much as just pays tribute to a better cinematic time. I'm wondering if it's gotten to the same point with Perry. I certainly felt that way about Why Did I Get Married after the train wrecks of Daddy's Little Girls, Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion, a film that offended me so deeply on so many different levels. Those films were so outright horrible that I was taken a bit aback by one that was merely inoffensivly bad.

Or, maybe Perry's just getting better?

Vancetastic said...

Interesting, Mike -- I agree with you 100% on Madea's Family Reunion (awful) but actually liked Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Since it was my first introduction to Tyler Perry (I saw it the same year it was released, before any others had come out), I didn't have anything to compare it to and just found it this schizophrenic mixture of comedy and sometimes quite intense drama. Today I probably would not look as kindly on it. I didn't see Daddy's Little Girls, but can genuinely recommend Meet the Browns and The Family That Preys. Each of those movies does some interesting things while making some serious gaffes (either too much proselytizing or too much Madea).

Your Drive example is an interesting point, but I think more than anything it's probably just that when there are as many as 11 movies in a "franchise" (yep, Perry's been cranking them out -- 11 since 2005), the odds are that some of them will be good.

Mike Lippert said...

Vance - It's interesting that Meet the Browns was turned into a sitcom because that's exactly where Tyler Perry's material belongs.

Mark said...

Vance -
No comment on Perry, just the awesome giganticness of your taglist. Scroll on, brother!

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Mark! Funny, I do worry about the length of my taglist, though I think it's one of those all-or-nothing things. If I just limited myself to very broad categories, then it's not much use to a reader as they scroll down through it. Then there's the whole fact that I'm throwing off the alphabetization by tagging movies with "the" at the beginning so they end up under T when alphabetized. Better not think too much about it or it could drive a pedant like me crazy!