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'Reunion' brings together melodrama, bawdy comedy

It's probably useful to think of ''Madea's Family Reunion" as a department store. There's something for almost anybody. Shopping for a paperback melodrama? It's on the first floor. Looking for a gospel sermon? Try the third. Bawdy physical comedy, including fart jokes and assorted sex riffs? The cellar, obviously. Some parts of Tyler Perry's new movie are better than others -- and all of it is better than ''Diary of a Mad Black Woman," his last one.

Perry wrote, directed, produced, and scored ''Family Reunion" and plays three characters in the film. But, amazingly, the movie doesn't reek of vanity. Someone else did a cruddy job directing the previous film, which Perry also wrote. So even though ''Diary" was a huge surprise hit, you get the feeling Perry has taken the reins because, presumably, he wanted it done right.

''Family Reunion," which Lion's Gate cravenly refused to screen for critics, is a warmer, more generous helping of the earnestness Perry's acolytes ate up in ''Diary." But this time one mad black woman has become two dissatisfied ones. Vanessa (Rochelle Aytes) is engaged to a man who beats her, and after two bad relationships, her half-sister Lisa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) has turned to Christ and celibacy.

They look to their brazen aunt Madea, played by Perry, for guidance. She, of course, has her own problems. She's still under house arrest for sundry misdemeanors, and as a punishment for removing her anklet, a judge (TV's Judge Mablean, no less!) orders her to take a juvenile delinquent (Keke Palmer) into her large Atlanta house, where her crass brother (Perry), Lisa, and her two little kids already live.

But rather than push for sitcom nonsense, Perry spins a mean, satisfying soap opera out of his middle-class landscape. Spineless Vanessa tries to sneak out of her abusive relationship, while Lisa is almost psychotically afraid to love again, even though her new man, Frankie (Boris Kodjoe), is an artist and city bus driver, and is willing to consummate according to Lisa's schedule, which could be never.

Naturally, these women have mom to thank for their screwy lives. She's a high-class diva, played, to Faye Dunaway extremes, by Lynn Whitfield, whose beauty is more youthful than anybody here. Mom is a schemer, all right, the kind of woman rapped about by too many hip-hoppers. She tells her gun-shy daughter she wishes she never had her and tells her abused daughter that she has to ''stop doing what you're doing to make him angry." Because Perry really seems to know his stories, mom is also in cahoots with Vanessa's abuser, played by Blair Underwood. Underwood really needs to reconsider his rebirth as the heavy in black movies. He's a leading man. In any case, he and Whitfield do some wonderfully sleazy acting together.

Perry is a playwright, and his dialogue here is usually entertaining. When Underwood and Whitfield square off, he tells her, ''Your horns are showing." She says, ''Oh, well are you upset 'cause mine are bigger?" This kind of stuff wins daytime Emmys.

But Perry is out for more than melodrama. He's taken it upon himself to uplift the race with a righteous homily eloquently delivered by Cicely Tyson. The movie's sermonizing has the curious effect of making the flatulence gags look embarrassing and the juicy parts seem cheap. But the wakeup call works anyway. When, during the big family reunion, Tyson demands the black youth of America have some dignity and pull up their jeans and cover their midriffs, I did cinch the waist of my pants on the way out of the theater.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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