POSTED ON APRIL 27, 2011:
Large and Lumbering
Big Happy Family is a big, horrible mess. Water for Elephants: too slow.
Facebook status when I returned home last Sunday evening: "Alone, curled up in the corner, naked, shivering and wet from the rain, wracked by the desolate sobs of the wayward damned after being gang raped by Madea's Big Happy Family". That might seem a bit hyperbolic, but then if you've ever seen a Tyler Perry film, you'll know that hyperbole is part of Madea's charm.
It's my understanding that Madea went to jail once (I didn't play catch up with Perry's 10 previous films) and her introduction in Big Happy Family immediately strains suspension of disbelief with the idea that they would have ever let her out.
Not so happy.
But it's not just Perry's odd Madea, a transvestite with a particularly bizarre elocution, who makes Big Happy Family feel like a roller coaster ride of the worst community theater ever set to screen. It's because Big Happy Family is a poorly made, ineptly acted, utterly annoying sacrilege by a filmmaker who embraces black stereotypes more fiercely than actual racists. Madea is just a weirder, more mentally unstable version of Dr. Phil, in drag, which, to me at least, is amusingly awful as opposed to being outright offensive.
Everyone has an ailment in Madea's Big Happy Family. Shirley -- the one and only likeable character in this affront -- played with almost nauseating kindness by Loretta Devine, has learned her cancer has reappeared. Returning character Mr. Brown (David Mann) is about to discover, despite his hysterical fear ass-breach, that he has a growth on his prostate. Meanwhile, all of the other male characters, Calvin (Old Spice's Isaiah Mustafa), Harold (Rodney Perry) and Byron (Shad Moss, better known as Bow Wow) appear to have no spines.
This is due in part to their women. Perry casts most of his characters in the worst light possible, but none more than the bitchy shrews these guys are married to or stuck with. Byron's girlfriend, Renee (Lauren London) is cajoling him into selling weed for extra cash to spend on her, even as he struggles to support a baby with his ex-girlfriend, Sabrina (Teyana Taylor), the most grating, hateful bit of character writing since Dana Carvey's life. Sabrina leaning on the syllables of Byron's name like a car horn makes the sound of blowtorched puppies seem like a lullaby. You'll know it when you hear it.
Meanwhile, Kimberly (Shannon Kane), wife of Calvin, has an intense case of vicious bitch. No one makes her happy, she can't stand being amongst her family, and she never misses an opportunity to emasculate Calvin who, if Old Spice commercials have taught us anything, is the ultimate man. Maybe that's a satirical statement on the superficiality of advertising. Doubtful, though. Meanwhile, Tammy (Natalie Desselle), wife of Harold, hates him for no particular reason aside from his being a complacent, ineffectual pussy.
Regardless, they are all overheated caricatures in a movie full of people who can't possibly exist and who, rest assured, Madea is going to straighten out when Shirley, the matriarch of this clan of nearly unrepentant assholes, summons them to a dinner to announce her impending, apparently fortunate, demise.
Being written, directed and produced by Tyler Perry, makes two less people to blame for Big Happy Family. Flat camera work and ham-fisted editing do no service to cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita's (Sukiyaki Western Django) efforts to make Perry's flick look interesting or even attractive. It's really Perry's overbearing, obnoxious script, his direction, which elicits daytime soap opera performances, and writing -- possessed of all the subtlety and sincerity of a cheesy infomercial -- coupled with his ability to get films into theaters, that make Big Happy Family the worst thing ever made.
Performances aren't uniformly terrible since Loretta Devine is so cloying likeable, but the bar is not high. The family doctor (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez) reads lines like he's failing an audition for a workplace safety video. Mustafa retains his Old Spice delivery in a role that demands even less. Cassi Davis as the stoner Aunt Bam strikes one as a contradiction in an overtly Christian family dramedy. It reeks of Perry milking poorly written stereotypes as opposed to creating characters that actually feel real. Overall, that's Big Happy Family's biggest problem. Aside from existing.
The films of Tyler Perry aren't really meant to be criticized because he already has an audience that will be there, regardless -- one that has apparently never heard of cognitive dissonance.
And they laughed.
Water for Elephants
Robert Pattinson and Sara Gruen are the two principal draws of Water for Elephants. Her well-received novel attracts the predominantly female adherents of the book while the brooding presence of The Patt serves to dragnet the girls who only like Twilight. Both audiences are underserved by director Francis Lawrence's superficial yet pretty adaptation. Water for Elephants is Titanic for Nicholas Sparks fans.
Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, the son of well off Polish immigrants during the Depression who finds himself vagabond after his parents are killed in a car accident. The bank winds up repossessing his inheritance since his parents had put themselves in hoc to send Jacob to Cornell University. Their passing cuts short his studies and robs him of his home.
Junk in the Trunk.
Wayward, with a thin suitcase, Jacob walks the railroad hoping to get to the big city and find a job. The miles take their toll. For better and worse, he hops a train belonging to a travelling circus, The Benzini Brothers. At first, a trio of lowly carneys means to throw him back off the train, "red-lighting" as it's called, since the chances of survival are iffy at best. But he's saved by Camel (Jim Norton), who senses that Jacob isn't a bum, and helps him get a chance to work for the circus' owner, August (Christoph Waltz).
August is struggling to keep the circus afloat and is cut-throat in the endeavor, ready to red-light Jacob merely for eating some food. His disdain for Jacob's education is allayed when he realizes Jacob was attending Cornell for veterinary sciences. August endeavors to best the hated Ringling Brothers in any way he can and, since his attractions are second-rate, he figures he might as well have something Ringling doesn't -- an Ivy League vet. Jacob doesn't let on that he never graduated.
Playing the part, Jacob meets Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), August's trophy wife and the other half of his main attraction, a prancing horse which Jacob diagnoses with a degenerative leg injury. When Jacob puts the animal down against August's wishes, but with the approval of a bereaved Marlena, he nearly earns himself another shot at getting thrown off the train.
Oddly, August takes Jacob under his wing instead, and when he obtains a new attraction, an untrained bull elephant named Rosie, he expects him to tame the beast and condition her to be Marlena's new ride. August's method, a cruel bull hook meant to torture the beast into obedience, conflicts with Jacob's love of animals and his empathy for the beast endears him to Marlena. The attraction is mutual...and doomed to grave consequences.
Never having read the book, I can't say how faithfully Water for Elephants has been adapted in the hands of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King). As a script, its structure and characters are basically a re-hash of Titanic. Bookended by Hal Holbrook as old Jacob, relating his role in the third worst circus tragedy ever known to some youngin' with an interest in circus tragedies, the tale casts Pattinson as Jack Dawson while Witherspoon's Marlena stands in for Rose. Chafing under the domineering, mentally ill, August, she's forced to give up all she knows for the sake of a simpler, more meaningful love and risk destitution.
In Francis Lawrence's hands, though, Water for Elephants dully plods through scene after expository scene, as his attempts to establish dramatic weight only result in any combination of syrupy romance, superficial moral declarations (Camel annoying harps on Prohibition, the Depression and animal cruelty in such an unsubtle, on-point manner that I was glad when he eventually died--oops, spoiler) and baffling characterizations, such as August's fondness for Jacob, or why anyone would want to work for August when they all know he'd rather kill most of his employees than pay them.
While it's wrapped in some fine production and art design, and Lawrence has a painterly eye for visuals, beautifully composed by Rodrigo Prieto (Babel, 21 Grams), Water for Elephants lacks a compelling narrative pace and dramatic heft as the shallow direction struggles to breathe life into what is ultimately a boring tale.
Pattinson, reverting as always between reflexive smiling and looking like something heavy dropped on his foot, has the dramatic range of a slingshot, while Witherspoon is tasked with playing a role a decade too young for her. Waltz goes manically over the top, crafting a character out of August that is almost as sadly desperate to please as he is to convince the audience, both fictional and real, that there is anything exciting going on here. I liked him better as a Nazi.
In the hands of a more perceptive director of this sort of material, Lasse Hallstrom perhaps, Water for Elephants might have been a bit more endearing. Under Francis Lawrence, it's a well-shot, richly atmospheric slog.
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