MOVIE REVIEW- Dysfunctional: Family novelty wears thin

A year ago, few Caucasians had ever heard of Tyler Perry, but he was well known to African Americans. If they hadn't seen him touring in his plays, they had made him a multi-millionaire by buying the videos of his stage performances.

Then came the movie version of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which brought Perry to a larger, multiracial audience. It was successful enough to allow another of his plays to get the big-screen treatment, this time with a bigger budget and the writer/star directing.

In Madea's Family Reunion Perry plays the same three characters: Madea, the feisty, irascible grandmother; Joe, her flatulent, dirty-minded older brother; and Brian, Madea's successful middle-class son.

Perry's directing duties seem to have taken away from the time he spends in a fat suit as Madea. Since she's the heart of the piece, it doesn't matter that they spent more money on music rights and other trappings; however you dress a body, without a heart it's dead.

Perhaps the novelty has worn off, but Diary swung wildly between intense melodrama and wacky comedy. Reunion lacks Kimberly Elise, who jacked up the drama, and with less Madea, it isn't as funny.

The plot is pretty much the same, but with Elise's character divided between two sisters. Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) is the woman who's mistreated by her man (Blair Underwood as Carlos, a self-described "collector of beautiful things"), while Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) is the woman who finally finds a good man (Boris Kodjoe as Frankie) but isn't sure she can trust him.

Carlos, who beats Lisa frequently- and they're not even married yet- is in league with her mother, Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), a Mommie Dearest if ever there was one. She's basically selling off her daughter, having depleted her trust fund, for Carlos' money. "Women sometimes have to deal with things to be comfortable," she counsels Lisa, who only tries to escape Carlos at night, while he's home to catch her and threaten, "I love you to death- and I mean that."

If there weren't so many long speeches, especially the sermonettes toward the end, there would be room for the subplot about Nikki (Keke Palmer), a troubled child placed in Madea's foster care by a judge. Madea's a strict disciplinarian ("I'm from the old school") who doesn't spare the rod, so we get the odd message that beating women is wrong but beating children is funny.

There are positive messages too, more than in the average Sunday service, by the time Cicely Tyson finishes preaching, Maya Angelou reciting, and Madea spitting out wisdom like, "It ain't what people call you. It's what you answer to."

Jenifer Lewis, playing a wedding planner, goes as far over the top as in her TV movies; but in this crowd nobody notices.

Madea is still a great creation, but her creator, while he may have more money than God, has to realize he can't do it all alone.