Written and Directed by: Tyler Perry
Starring: Tyler Perry, Cassi Davis, and Patrice Lovely
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Trick or treat, fools!
Has any hugely successful filmmaker worked further under the radar than Tyler Perry for the past decade? As producer, writer, actor, and director, he’s been involved with numerous wildly popular television shows, plays, and films, yet he somehow feels like a niche, cult artist in many ways. I mean, did you even know he was doing this whole shared universe thing before Marvel made it every studio’s mandate? No matter how you might feel about the actual work, it’s absurd that Perry—an African-American filmmaker basically working outside of the studio system—isn’t hailed for his accomplishments. People love this stuff and have for a long time, and I think we cult movie fans should appreciate that on some level.
Indeed, the Tyler Perry Cinematic Universe has been going strong for over a decade now, partly thanks to a string of bizarre melodramas, but mostly thanks to Madea, Perry’s most indelible creation. Even if you only have a passing knowledge of Perry, you’re likely at least familiar with this eccentric character, a gregarious, motor-mouthed septuagenarian played by Perry himself in drag. A perfect reflection for Perry’s bizarre brand of amoral morality plays, Madea is often downright insane but weirdly good-hearted, so it comes as no surprise that her Halloween outing—which is basically Madea Scared Stupid—is full of tricks and treats for those familiar with this fare. It’s the type of movie that can make protracted jokes out of child abuse yet still mount its high horse and preach about family values.
Specifically, this is Perry’s extended riff on “kid’s today” and the struggles parents face to keep them in line. You see, Madea’s nephew Brian (also Perry) is recently divorced after his wife’s affair, and his daughter Tiffany (Diamond White) is out of control: every interaction with her father is disrespectful, and she has no regard for his rules, including his demand that she stays in on Halloween night instead of attending a nearby frat party. In an effort to ensure this happens, he invites Madea over to watch Tiffany, at which point his dismayed aunt and her crew insist that Brian should beat the girl’s ass. When Brian makes it clear this is not an option, Madea and company predictably watch Tiffany sneak out of the house, leading to a prank-laden confrontation with the meat-headed frat pack.
I suppose it’s fair to make this clear right off the bat: despite how incredible it would be to see Madea do battle with actual supernatural elements, this is sadly not the case here. The Halloween setting is mostly set-dressing for the holiday to become a staging ground for the escalating prank war between Madea and the fraternity brothers, so she doesn’t do battle with zombies or ghosts (though the appearance of murder clowns is well-timed, given that recent craze). Tyler Perry’s movies can only be so unhinged, I guess, and the appearance of real goblins and ghosts might completely break this world.
Of course, the irony here is that the Tyler Perry universe is already so unlike our own world that the presence of the supernatural wouldn’t be all that jarring. In typical Perry fashion, Boo! is full of bewildering exchanges and interactions, with much of the humor eventually bordering on feeling a little uncomfortable. This becomes apparent early on when Madea and her pot-smoking cousin Bam (Cassi Davis) riff on their front porch and eventually have a confrontation with a trick-or-treater and his mother when Bam is caught stealing from the boy’s candy bucket. It’s an exchange that ends with Madea chastising the kid about his weight as he leaves dispirited, and the film only grows more absurd in its mean-spirited humor. As you watch Madea and Joe (Brian’s father, the third of Perry’s three roles there) reminisce about putting Brian in the ICU and shoving him off of a roof when disciplining him as a child (the latter ended with Brian losing one of his testicles, much to the glee of everyone delighting in his misery).
Obviously, this is a distinct brand of humor, one that hinges on your tolerance for obvious gags and wrong-headed, mean-as-hell interactions. Anyone familiar with it can almost certainly count it as an acquired taste, so if this is your first encounter with Madea and company, it might take a bit to adjust to the speed and tone of this demented, nigh-sociopathic thing. Personally, it’s not exactly my thing, though I will admit a soft-spot for any shenanigans involving fraternities, even if this particular bunch is the most harmless pack of frat boys imaginable. Ostensibly the “villains” of the movie, they’re such a tame group of knuckleheads whose personalities range from “faux-Lothario” to “concussion victim.” Other notable members include a dude who can hack into shit (all of the boys naturally lose their minds when they find out he’s the one responsible for last year’s sorority peep show, in case you’re wondering how gross this can really be) and a couple of dudes who can flip. Like, this is their entire purpose: to cut flips, and it’s enough to earn membership.
You sometimes sense that Perry is only doing this shit to amuse himself, and that’s fine. That it has crossover, popular appeal is only a bonus to him because, if nothing else, a film like Boo! is pretty uncompromising in the sense that it’s just an excuse for Perry and his troupe to riff as these characters again. Clearly, anyone like me who has devoted a good chunk of his life to apologizing to the horror genre’s sometimes shameless whims is in no position to judge such an approach. Boo! is delivered with the confidence of a cast and crew that knows what it and its audience craves, which in this case is simply this familiar bunch bullshitting around. Call it Madeaploitation, but it’s a formula that works, and there’s a reason the title carries her name: she’s an attraction, and I can’t imagine this outing will disappoint fans just looking to spend 100 minutes with Perry’s most famous creation. In that time, they’ll be treated to her signature vocal inflection, her peculiar thirst for revenge, her hilarious distrust of the police, and her willingness to let frat boys feel her up as a “punishment.” This is a thing that happens in an actual movie currently set to topline this weekend’s box office, and it somehow feels weirdly commendable.
Also commendable is how Perry refuses to just turn Boo! into a half-assed spoof of popular horror movies. Unlike A Haunted House or similar Friedberg/Seltzer atrocities, A Madea Halloween actually aspires to be an actual movie instead of a lazy grab-bag of dumb references and silly sight gags. It may only accomplish that in the loosest sense of the term, but Perry has done the common courtesy of providing a script with observable character arcs and something approaching a theme, no matter how ham-fisted and obvious it is. (This is to say nothing of the general tone-deafness either—let’s just say he’s staging heart-warming family reconciliations mere seconds after indulging prison rape jokes!) Perry is nothing if not completely earnest in his bizarre attempt to moralize amongst total, manic chaos—it’s become something of his auteur’s stamp, I guess, and it continues here, with Madea triumphing in her conviction that real discipline involves ass-beatings and scaring the absolute piss out of people. I am not sure most psychologists would agree, but I am also not quite sure psychologists as we know them exist in Tyler Perry’s world.
Likewise, A Madea Halloween kind of exists in its own world: most movies need to be met on their own level, but Perry has some of the most unusual terms and conditions. Your enjoyment will largely stem from how much you enjoy hanging out with Madea, Joe, Bam, and Patrice Lovely’s Hattie, whose distinctive traits are her funny speech patterns and her perpetual horniness. Every performance is broader than broad to the point where the whole thing predictably becomes a farce, though it’s admittedly kind of infectious since you can’t help but chuckle at how wrong some of it is (particularly whenever Joe opens his mouth—at one point, it’s almost like Perry is daring you to laugh).
While it’s not completely my sort of thing, I don’t find it too hard to meet it halfway and acknowledge there’s some lurid entertainment value in Boo!, the latest bonkers effort from a filmmaker that crafts both outsider art and mainstream junk all at once. There’s nothing quite like a Tyler Perry production, and, sometimes, that’s the best argument for giving something a shot.
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