Last we heard in last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea (Tyler Perry) was solving social cultural and familial problems. What a busy lady! Well she’s done gone and done it again after a whole new crop of problems pop up that need fixing. This time the conflicts revolve primarily around two sisters Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) both of whom are wary of their financial-minded mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa is deathly afraid to love again after her husband left her and two kids and fears she might’ve met Mr. Right in the form of a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). Meanwhile Lisa is in a physically abusive relationship with Carlos (Blair Underwood) “Atlanta’s most eligible bachelor ” but is afraid to leave him. Madea the antithesis of gold-digging Victoria solves these and many more problems as the family reunion nears. After Mad Black Woman’s surprise box office take last year bigger names were less reluctant to sign on. Accordingly the new actors in Reunion are very solid—borderline stellar collectively. The lone exception is Perry as Madea (as well as a few other characters) whose over-the-topness although expected reduces the air of professionalism from the rest. Underwood is so damn good at being so damn bad as the abusive fiancée Carlos while Whitfield matches him chill for chill in a very icy performance. The relative unknowns/newcomers are the most pleasant surprises however. Aytes has breathtaking beauty that would normally overshadow acting but not here. Anderson whose last film was ‘95’s Clockers is equally beautiful and evocative as a single mother torn. And for the female eyes there’s Kodjoe whom girls will likely fall for even more when they learn he can actually act. Perry wears many hats in Family Reunion: writer director producer star--and oh yeah he also wrote the popular stage production from which the film is adapted. Perhaps Perry’s workaholic attitude contributes to the film’s thematic overkill. There are a number of kinks in the film’s completely uneven story and the way it is told but perhaps the biggest problem stems from the fact that it still feels like a stage play. Sometimes that’s a plus for a film but it’s hard to think it was intended. This feeling is elicited by the sum of the story’s parts. Perry will be in one scene telling the tale of a beleaguered battered woman amid a linear and conventional storyline and in the next scene become Madea in her cartoonish and campy getup dishing out her tough love techniques. No doubt Reunion is an enjoyable play--only if you agree with Perry’s comedic remedies for serious issues.
Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) thought she had the perfect life with lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris): a big house lots of creature comforts and a stable--albeit staid--marriage. But Helen's world shatters when Charles tells her on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary that he wants a divorce and literally kicks her out of their spacious mansion to make room for another woman. Devastated she runs to her beloved pot-smokin' gun-totin' grandmother Madea (Tyler Perry) who lets Helen know she's a proud beautiful black woman who nonetheless should whoop the bastard's ass. As hurt as she is Helen really just wants to pick up the pieces and move on if she can. She finds guidance and empowerment from her family and friends including new friend Orlando (Shemar Moore) a drop-dead gorgeous construction worker whose sweet and sincere ways more than help Helen get through her pain. And he cooks too. Really there's no contest.
The main cast members aptly portray their roles formulaic as they are. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) as the grievously wronged wife has the toughest job trying to convey all the crazy mixed-up feelings Helen has for the ex-husband while trying to jumpstart her life. Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) as the callous husband and Shemar Moore (TV's The Young and the Restless) as the too-good-to-be-true suitor represent the two opposites sides of the coin. Even Cicely Tyson makes an appearance as Helen's invalid mother who seems just a little too healthy to be in a nursing home. But it's Tyler Perry who turns out to be the true mad black woman. The film comes alive when he's onscreen either playing the outrageous Madea--complete with wig makeup and padding--or Madea's brother Joe a lecherous old coot. Perry even gets to play it straight as Helen's kindly cousin Brian who has a junkie for a wife (played by Tamara Taylor with the usual vacant twitchy neediness). It would have been a long hour and a half without him.
Perry obviously writes from the heart having struggled through his younger years to become a well-known playwright. And with music video director Darren R. Grant at the helm Diary of a Mad Black Woman has all the best intentions. It's certainly a buoyant portrait of African-American life and culture that also speaks to anyone who has had to grapple with betrayal and hurt at the hands of those they love. But the stage-trained Perry somehow misses the subtleties of writing for film. Diary doesn't know what kind of genre it wants to be jumping from raucous comedy á la Big Momma's House to mind-numbing drama á la Waiting to Exhale. The characters don't have any complexities and are drawn very black or white. It also takes an awfully long time for our heroine to figure out what direction she's going to take when we could tell her in the first 30 minutes as to whom she should end up with. In the meantime we must endure several melodramatic set pieces filled with elaborate speeches about revenge love relationships redemption religion and all that which are meant to hit us hard with their poignancy. Perry might consider keeping the highfalutin writing for the stage and think about an acting career in film.
Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as Ryan Dunne the first local boy to break into the Cape Cod Baseball League--a stable of college all-stars who descend upon the idyllic seaside town for the summer to duke it out for pro scouts. Ryan is a fairly talented pitcher but tends to choke at key moments in a game. He's got a dad (Fred Ward) and a brother (Jason Gedrick) who work blue-collar jobs and (in a typically clichéd fashion) don't want to see Ryan fail as they have. But even with all the competition Ryan still manages to make friends with rowdy catcher Billy "Bru" Brubaker (Matthew Lillard). To complicate matters Ryan gets involved with the lovely and--surprise!--rich girl named Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel) whose father (Bruce Davison) is none too pleased about his daughter's budding romance with the "boy from the wrong side of the tracks." The pressures are mounting. Will Ryan make it to the Big Show? And if so will we care?
No matter what he does Prinze seems to be in this teen flick rut. His Ryan may be the most complex character he has played so far but that isn't saying a whole lot. The actor has decent range and is capable of tackling heavier material. It's just time for him to grow up. Biel known best for her role as a troubled daughter on the family WB show 7th Heaven gets to stretch her wings here and does a good job playing an unspoiled rich girl who doesn't care what her family thinks. On the flip side Davison falls right into the villainous father figure role without trying anything new. Lillard underplays his talented slugger from USC yet manages to add a requisite amount of flair when needed. Still like his pal Prinze he needs to move on and join the big leagues. However a true standout is Brian Dennehy as the demanding but understanding coach. He is one of those actors you can always depend upon to give you a good performance.
The premise of the story in which the action is centered upon the Cape Cod Baseball League is different but the script never digs deep. Apparently the writers felt subtleties in a scene wouldn't adequately display the emotional impact needed so every cliché in the book is thrown right in your face. For example Ryan's embittered and widowed dad who has long given up his dreams will be damned if he sees Ryan fail. There are the typical barroom antics as well as the sneering rival pitcher (Corey Pearson) who wants Ryan out of the way. Or how about the "fast" girl in town (Brittany Murphy wasted in this role) with a heart of gold. You get the picture. It's clear director Michael Tollin enjoys the game of baseball. The film steps up a notch when the action is on the field. However many directors before him have portrayed the beloved sport better.