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Film review: Message muddled in 'Family Reunion'

Published: Wednesday, March 1 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Madea (Tyler Perry, center) with Lisa (Rochelle Aytes, left) and Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) in "Madea's Family Reunion."

Alfeo Dixon, Lions Gate Films

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TYLER PERRY'S MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION — * 1/2 — Tyler Perry, Rochelle Aytes, Blair Underwood; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, violence, sex, drugs); Carmike 12 and Ritz 15 Theaters; Century Theatres 16 (South Salt Lake); Century Theatres 16 (Sandy); Cinemark 24 at Jordan Landing; Megaplex 12 at the Gateway.

Tyler Perry's heart is in the right place, but he still has a tin ear.

The same tonal problems that plagued last year's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" resurface in "Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion."

Serving this time as director besides having written the script and starring in three roles — including, of course, dragging it up as the pistol-packing, plus-size Aunt Madea — Perry has a message of empowerment and self-respect that's not just important for women to hear, it's essential. He also has a few choice words for the men in the audience: Stand by your women and your families. They need you.

Unfortunately, all that too often gets muddled in his mess of a screenplay. Maybe the material worked better in its original form on stage. But in cinematic form, "Madea's Family Reunion," like its predecessor, jumps jarringly between romance, domestic drama and broad physical comedy. At times it feels as if Perry made three separate films, dumped them in a blender and hit the puree button.

("Madea's Family Reunion," which wasn't screened for critics before opening day, is the only movie you'll see this year that features protracted flatulence jokes, a plot twist involving child molestation, and a poetry recital by Maya Angelou. Unless all three show up in "Scary Movie 4," of course.)

Like Kimberly Elise in Perry's first film, who went from pampered society wife to mad black woman, Rochelle Aytes stars as Lisa, the beautiful, stylish fiancee of a beautiful, stylish Atlanta investment banker. But behind closed doors, Blair Underwood's Carlos repeatedly abuses her, and Lisa's materialistic mother (Lynn Whitfield) only encourages her to withstand the beatings to maintain her comfortable life.

Madea finds time to give her and Lisa's sister, Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), no-nonsense advice about their love lives while caring for a wayward foster daughter, sparring with her dirty-old-man older brother (Perry again, in white hair and overalls) and planning the titular family reunion.

All these elements pop up out of nowhere, with seemingly no attempt at a smooth transition between them. Madea pummels a boy on the school bus who's been bullying her foster daughter, followed by a scene in which Vanessa and her new boyfriend, Frankie (Boris Kodjoe), rhapsodize about what a blessing kids are during a play date at the park.

Later, Vanessa will get onstage at a club during a poetry slam to perform one of her painful original works: "He. Gives. Me. Courage. To love." It's one of many scenes that feel corny through the smothering use of romantic R&B music.

There is one great moment at the family reunion, though, in which Aunt Myrtle (Cicely Tyson) lovingly scolds everyone in attendance for not behaving like better people, for not taking responsibility for themselves and not loving each other steadfastly enough.

It's a rare moment of truth in a movie that too often feels either melodramatic or self-consciously madcap.

"Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion" is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, domestic violence, sex and drug references. Running time: 107 minutes.