The “Madea” movies have only intermittently done right by the character of Madea. Tyler Perry’s creation Mabel “Madea” Simmons is an outrageously anarchic agent of chaos that, until now, has never fit particularly comfortably in Perry’s didactic melodramas. (Imagine Bugs Bunny getting stuck in the world of “Davey & Goliath.”)
With “A Madea Homecoming,” Perry has — probably for the first time since “Madea’s Big Happy Family” — created a vehicle that lets Madea be Madea. No longer required by Perry the executive producer to tone down the material for a family-friendly PG-13 rating, Perry the writer-director-actor lets Madea be the blunt-talking, gun-toting, no-nonsense THC enthusiast that the character was always meant to be.
Madea’s extended family — including Uncle Joe (also Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis Patton), Mr. Brown (David Mann), and Cora (Tamela Mann) — gathers at her house for the graduation of Tim (Brandon Black, Netflix’s “Dear White People”), who’s the valedictorian at a never-named HBCU. But whenever Madea’s family gathers, drama arises: Tim’s big day involves the return of his father Richard (Amani Atkinson), recently and acrimoniously divorced from Tim’s mom Laura (Gabrielle Dennis, “A Black Lady Sketch Show”).
Matters get further complicated when Tim’s roommate Davi (Isha Blaaker, “The Flight Attendant”) gets a surprise visit from his Irish aunt, Agnes Brown (Brendan O’Carroll, importing his popular character from the Irish sitcom “Mrs. Brown’s Boys”). Edibles will be consumed, verbal and literal shots will be fired, and Madea will dispense sage advice and outrageous malapropisms in equal quantities.
To be a fan of Madea on film has often been an exercise in enduring clunky writing and even, sometimes, half-hearted performances from Perry. Back in 2012, Perry had said “Madea’s Witness Protection” would be his last go-round playing the character, and he trudged through the movie like it was a contractual obligation; in 2022, however, Perry seems re-energized and ready to deliver full-strength Madea. (It might help that Perry isn’t also playing stick-in-the-mud nephew Brian this time around.) Whether playing off his returning company of co-stars or swapping barbs with fellow drag comic O’Carroll, Perry’s giving one of his best self-directed performances.
Tonally, “A Madea Homecoming” feels more empathetic than previous entries: Where LGBTQ characters had previously been the butt of jokes (or evil purveyors of HIV), a coming-out here is handled with compassion and grace. Even the no-good cheaters, after a requisite tongue-lashing from Madea, aren’t made to suffer as they might have earlier in this auteur’s oeuvre.
Perry’s script weaves in topical subject matter and social commentary with more deftness than he has in the past, whether it’s the presence of Laura’s sister, police officer Ellie (Candace Maxwell, “All the Queen’s Men), prompting discussion about Black Lives Matter or the misunderstandings that ensue when, for example, Aunt Agnes’ exhortation “Don’t get your knickers in a twist” gets misheard by Madea and Joe.
Whether it has to do with a Netflix budget or getting more pre-production time from the pandemic, “Homecoming” feels like Perry’s most cinematically assured film. After the flat cinematography and abrupt transitions of recent output like “Boo 2” and “A Fall From Grace,” this is a movie that looks and feels like a movie and not low-budget television. Cinematographer Taylor Randall, a music-video vet making his feature debut, captures warm tones, even in a very product-placement-driven trip to Red Lobster, while editor Larry Sexton, a frequent Perry collaborator, delivers his finest work to date for the director, including some flashy but fun scene transitions.
Perry’s new-found embrace of cinematic daring extends even to the closing credits, which are hilariously elaborate while also providing a double-meaning to the title. They’re a don’t-miss capper to what may well be his best film to date.
“A Madea Homecoming” premieres Friday on Netflix.