Given that Tyler Perry is the ultimate auteur of the Madea series – not only does he write, direct, produce, and star, but the films are made by his studio – there is something perplexing, though perhaps also a bit endearing, about to how rough and unpolished they are. The unevenness of A Madea Christmas really stands out. Based as it is on a play by Perry, there had to have been at least two completed drafts of the work, although there is no evidence of this in the released film, which comes across as rushed and unfinished.
The charm of the Madea films, if that is the right word, is Perry’s in-drag portrayal of the lead character. Madea is completely over-the-top, saying and doing whatever she pleases. A force of nature, she is as out of control as a bad storm. Yet, she seems somehow ill-conceived. Sometimes she is as the fool in a Renaissance-era English play, speaking the truth when no one else is or can even see it. Other times she is just rude, overbearing, and obnoxious.
This one begins with a tour de force by Madea as the most nightmarish department-store Santa Claus of all time, rude and hostile. Soon fired, she is recruited by her friend Eileen (Horsford) to travel to rural Alabama and pay a surprise visit to Lacey (Sumpter), Eileen’s daughter, a small-town schoolteacher. What neither Madea nor Eileen knows is that Lacey has married Connor (Lively), a white man. Lacey is so convinced that this news will kill her mom that she keeps it from her, pretending Connor is just the hand on her farm. The situation is compounded when his redneck parents (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy) arrive. While they are as down-home Southern as they can be, Perry plays with stereotypes (in a somewhat heavy-handed way) by having them be coarse yet open and tolerant.
There are subplots involving local farmers, the town’s traditional Christmas pageant, the school where Lacey teaches, and an old boyfriend of hers (JR Lemon). As is Perry’s wont, there is religious proselytizing and heavy-handed moralizing clothed in predictable melodrama. Everything is resolved with a clumsy deus ex machina, with a doubling down of deus.
Ultimately, regardless of plot, Madea is the center, purpose, and driving force of the film. The contradictions are not overwhelmed but emphasized by Perry’s outsized performance. Madea rages through it all, speaking her mind, including a turn where she verbally tortures and mangles the traditional Christmas narrative. Rather than rising above the fray, Madea is very much the fray itself.