We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

For anyone still unfamiliar with Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise, there’s one important thing to keep in mind: Madea may be a big momma, but she’s no Big Momma. One look at Perry’s fatsuited old lady, and there it is—the traumatic image of Martin Lawrence’s own similarly enlarged, painfully unfunny female alter ego. What a surprise, then, to find genuine humor in Madea’s Family Reunion, the sequel to Perry’s 2005 hit, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Written and directed by Perry, Family Reunion emphasizes the same themes that run through his stage works: the importance of self-respect, of family, and of generally behaving in an upstanding Christian manner. The most significant story lines follow Madea’s nieces, Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) and her half-sister, Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson). Lisa is engaged to a perfect investment banker (Blair Underwood)—except he hits her. Vanessa has two children and no longer trusts men—but here comes a sent-from-heaven good guy who persistently pursues her (Boris Kodjoe). There’s also an angry-at-the-world foster child, Nikki (Keke Palmer), whom Madea is court-ordered to take in—and who naturally transforms into a polite, hardworking youngster through Madea’s tough love. Obviously, there’s plenty of heavy-handedness here: When the reunion finally takes place, for example, it’s capped by a random family member’s “I Have a Dream”–esque speech that, though eloquent, pretty much has nothing to do with what’s preceded it onscreen. But perhaps Perry’s worst misstep involves a character’s getting back at someone by dousing him with hot grits: Not only is this not terribly Christian, but it’s also accompanied by “Love and Happiness”—by the Rev. Al Green, who years ago was attacked the very same way. No one should blame this parade of old-fashioned values for trying to undercut itself a bit, but that’s just tasteless. Perry the director should have had more faith in Perry the star: For every Lesson that slaps you in the face, there he is, all arch one-liners and forever-threatened violence (“I shot Tupac!”). The filmmaker also plays Madea’s brother, Joe, who seems to exist only to add some Sanford and Son–ish wisecracking. You might have never before found flatulence funny, but try not to laugh when Joe addresses the subject with the advice “Let go and let God.”—Tricia Olszewski