One of the most interesting success stories of 2005 belonged to Tyler Perry, who became an overnight celebrity when his debut film Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened at number one last February, beating out such big names as Will Smith in Hitch and Keanu Reeves in Constantine. The funny thing about Hollywood's-and, by extension, the mainstream media's-sudden discovery of Perry is that, for a significant portion of the country, he already was a huge star. Since the late '90s, the actor/director/writer has been performing in front of sold-out audiences on the so-called "chitlin' circuit." Considering Hollywood's general difficulty with spotting fresh new talent, particularly when those entertainers happen to skew to a more "urban" (i.e., black) crowd, it's no surprise that it took so long for Perry to pop up on the industry's radar. They are certainly trying to make up for that oversight. In the wake of Diary's success, Lionsgate signed Perry to a multi-picture deal, an arrangement that seems even wiser now that his second film, Madea's Family Reunion, has debuted to even bigger box-office numbers than its predecessor. It's safe to say that Tyler Perry will be making movies in Hollywood for many years to come.

While that's good news for Perry and his devoted fan base, you'll have to excuse those of us who aren't quite as enthusiastic about seeing the continuing adventures of his signature character Madea, a formidable grandmother-type (played by Perry in drag) who packs a quick wit, a mean right hook, and a pistol for good measure. How you react to Madea largely determines how feel about Perry as a storyteller, as she embodies the odd combination of over-the-top caricature and genuine emotion that fuels his work. Some viewers will look at the character and recognize her as someone they know, while others will only see a shrill cartoon. Perry himself doesn't seem to care which side you ultimately come down on; taking his cue from Madea, he uses his films to say what's on his mind without worrying what people might think.

There's something refreshing about Perry's lack of self-consciousness. Too bad he's such a clumsy writer. Like Diary, Reunion feels like a dozen movies crammed into one. The film is overflowing with subplots and shifts wildly in tone from scene to scene, with the broadly comic stylings of Madea and her fellow old-timer Uncle Joe (also played by Perry) sitting uneasily alongside some of the more melodramatic story threads involving domestic violence and child abuse. The basic story finds Madea providing some much-needed guidance to her two grown nieces, one of whom is being abused by her fiancé, while the other is having difficulty opening her heart to a new love in her life because of her troubled history with men. Perry underlines this soap opera with a strong strain of Christian evangelism, particularly in the scenes set at the titular reunion where Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson turn up to lecture the assorted family members about how to be better people. This isn't quite as dire as it sounds, largely because Tyson and Angelou deliver their speeches with great authority and emotion and the message they have to deliver is ultimately a positive one.

If there's one thing that Reunion doesn't lack, it's good intentions. Unfortunately, good intentions don't automatically guarantee a good movie. Still, one only has to watch the movie in a theatre full of Tyler Perry fans to see that the film plays like gangbusters for its target audience. At the screening I attended, the crowd was laughing, cheering and talking back to the screen. Maybe those viewers can fill the rest of us in on what we're missing.

-Ethan Alter