Tyler Perry doesn’t always make movies. Sometimes he just throws a bunch of crap together and calls it a movie. Does that sound harsh? Maybe, but would he even disagree? A Madea Christmas was based on Perry’s play of the same name: I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea how faithful he is to himself, but watching the film I could imagine how it might have worked as some sort of Christmas stage pageant full o’ stuff. It’s got a small town trying to put on a Christmas jubilee; it’s got mixed-race couples, in-law shenanigans, a school that’s running out of money, an evil corporation, a dispute over corn, a dam that’s putting people out of work, racism, reverse-racism … even the Klan shows up, briefly. Nothing is really worked through dramatically — most of these subplots are mentioned and then dropped. But by the end, a little boy sings about Jesus and all is well in the world. I don’t know, maybe it worked as theater. Onscreen, it’s torture.
The film begins with Madea (Tyler Perry, in drag as usual) having found a job as a greeter in an Atlanta department store, which requires her to dress up in Santa clothes. (“I look like a whole damn Red Light District!”) Unfortunately, much to the consternation of her co-worker and niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford), who got her the gig, Madea has little interest in playing the part: Whenever anyone shows up, she basically cuts them down for being old or fat or whatever. Along the way, as part of her nonstop complain- and insult-a-thon, Madea mentions all the wild things she did in her past: Beating her children, dealing drugs, stripping, prostitution. Anyway, good times.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Bucktussle, Alabama, where she works as a teacher, Eileen’s daughter Lacey (Tika Sumpter) attempts to save the town Christmas jubilee after it’s announced that budget problems have forced its cancellation. Owing to that, and also to the fact that she’s married handsome white farmer Conner (Eric Lively) and doesn’t want her mother to know, Lacey tells Eileen she won’t be coming up for Christmas this year. So Eileen and Madea come down to the small town, unannounced. To hide their marriage, Lacey pretends Conner is just some hired help. This is complicated, however, when Conner’s own parents arrive, in the form of Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy.
I suppose one of the few benefits of making a movie without any narrative urgency or structure is that you can just let a couple of dudes riff for a while. As a result, this is by far the most engaging part of the film — in part because the amiable, improv-y exchanges between Perry’s Madea and Larry the Cable Guy’s Buddy can be fun to watch, if not exactly uproarious. Also, these scenes are the closest Perry comes to saying something surprising or interesting: In the dismissive way Eileen treats Conner, whom she thinks is a hired hand, we get a reversal of the usual race-based scenario of white people mistaking black people for the help. And we get the rather unusual sight of rednecks lecturing black people about how we’re all the same inside.
There’s more, some of it having to do with bullying, some of it with Jesus. Lacey arranges for a big company called Sheldon Construction to bankroll the town’s jubilee, but it turns out to be one of those Evil Corporations that wants to drop any references to Christ or the Nativity, which makes for another subplot — by which I mean it’s basically mentioned once and then quickly resolved at the end. Throughout, the haphazard quality of Perry’s writing and directing smothers anything from feeling organic or motivated. There’s no care given to timing or narrative dexterity. Stuff just happens in this movie. The film’s final act contains what must be the most convenient car wreck in cinema history, and its awkward placement distracts you briefly from the fact that the scene blatantly rips off a scene from Paul Haggis’s Crash. (Even the movies Perry borrows from are terrible.) But like almost everything else in this ghastly film, the scene is so awkwardly shot and staged that unoriginality is the least of its problems. Really, what does it say about a movie when Larry the Cable Guy is the best thing in it?