The “Madea” films only intermittently did the character of Madea. Tyler Perry’s creation, Mabel “Madea” Simmons, is an outrageously anarchic agent of chaos who, until now, has never been particularly comfortable in Perry’s didactic melodramas. (Imagine Bugs Bunny stuck in the world of “Davey & Goliath.”)
With “A Madea Homecoming”, Perry has – probably for the first time since “Madea’s Big Happy Family” – created a vehicle that allows Madea to be Madea. Executive Producer Perry No Longer Required To Tone Down Material For A Family-Friendly PG-13 Rating, Writer-Director-Actor Perry Lets Madea Be The Straight-Talking, Gun-Wielding THC Enthusiast and that makes no sense. was always meant to be.
Madea’s extended family – including Uncle Joe (also Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis Patton), Mr. Brown (David Mann) and Cora (Tamela Mann) – gather at her home for the graduation of Tim (Brandon Black, Netflix’s “Dear White People”), who is valedictorian for an unnamed HBCU. But every time Madea’s family reunites, tragedy strikes: Tim’s big day involves the return of his father Richard (Amani Atkinson), recently and acrimoniously divorced from Tim’s mother, Laura (Gabrielle Dennis, “A Black Lady Sketch Show”).
Things get more complicated when Tim’s roommate Davi (Isha Blaaker, “The Flight Attendant”) receives a surprise visit from his Irish aunt, Agnes Brown (Brendan O’Carroll, importing her popular character from the Irish sitcom “Mrs. Brown’s Boys”). Edibles will be consumed, verbal and literal shots will be fired, and Madea will dispense sage advice and outrageous malapropism in equal amounts.
Being a Madea fan in film has often been an exercise in awkward writing and even, at times, half-hearted Perry performances. In 2012, Perry said “Madea’s Witness Protection” would be his final turn playing the character, and he walked through the film as if it were a contractual obligation; in 2022, however, Perry looks invigorated and ready to deliver Madea in full force. (It might help that Perry isn’t also playing nephew Brian, this time around.) Whether it’s performing with his company of returning co-stars or trading barbs with fellow drag comic O ‘Carroll, Perry gives one of his best self-taught performances.
Tonally, “A Madea Homecoming” feels more empathetic than previous entries: where LGBTQ characters had previously been the butt of jokes (or bad HIV carriers), a coming out here is handled with compassion and grace. Even good-for-nothing cheaters, after a required lick from Madea, aren’t forced to suffer the way they might have earlier in this author’s oeuvre.
Perry’s script weaves in topical issues and social commentary more deftly than in the past, whether it’s the presence of Laura’s sister, police officer Ellie (Candace Maxwell, “All the Queen’s Men ), sparking a discussion about Black Lives Matter or the misunderstandings that ensue when, for example, Aunt Agnes’ exhortation “Don’t put your panties in a twist” is misheard by Madea and Joe.
Whether it’s a Netflix budget or getting more pre-production time thanks to the pandemic, “Homecoming” looks like Perry’s most cinematically assured film. After the flat cinematography and abrupt transitions of recent releases like “Boo 2” and “A Fall From Grace,” this is a movie-like movie, not low-budget TV. Cinematographer Taylor Randall, a music video veteran making his debut, captures warm tones even on a highly product placement-focused trip to Red Lobster, while editor Larry Sexton, a collaborator Perry’s frequent, delivers his best work yet for the director, including flashy but fun scene transitions.
Perry’s new embrace of cinematic boldness even extends to the closing credits, which are hilariously elaborate while giving the title a double meaning. They’re a can’t-miss capsule for what might just be his best film yet.
“A Madea Homecoming” premieres Friday on Netflix.