I must admit, with some trepidation (lest her legions of fans tear me apart), that I've never understood the appeal of Tyler Perry's wildly popular Madea, the 6-foot-4 bully-girl of a busybody Perry introduced on stage in 1999's I Can Do Bad All by Myself and on the big screen six years later in Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

She's the last person I'd ever want as an aunt or, heaven help me, a mom. She scares the daylights out of me.

Perry puts on the makeup, applies those terrifying prosthetics, and squeezes into Madea's not-so-frilly outfits for his eighth outing as the fearless truth-teller in the upbeat offering Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas.

Slapdash, with dialogue and plot points that were cliches in Dickens' era, the pic sends up, then reaffirms, all the values the media sell us each holiday: compassion, forgiveness, tolerance. All delivered with the usual crude jokes and sexual innuendos that earn Madea films their PG-13 rating.

The story opens with Madea in a part she was born to play: a department-store Santa.

"I look like a whole damn red-light district!" the old girl says about the outfit she has to wear.

Madea's not exactly a hit with customers. Rude, mean-spirited, and uncompromising, she gets herself fired. The Santa scenes are terrible, tasteless - and some of the funniest work Tyler's Madea has done on screen.

Madea isn't unemployed for long. Her niece, Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford), who got her the Santa gig, tells her she's worried about her daughter, schoolteacher Lacey (a terrific Tika Sumpter), who has refused to come home for Christmas. Eileen is intent on driving to Lacey's home in rural Alabama, and she offers to pay Madea to come along.

Lacey's mother is shocked to find that her girl has shacked up with a guy named Connor (Eric Lively). Not only is he bearded, not only is he Caucasian - but also he has Larry the Cable Guy as his dad! (Mr. Guy and costar Kathy Najimy, who plays his wife, have a hoot injecting improv into the film.)

Family trauma ensues, with Madea playing peacemaker between Eileen and Lacey. Eventually, we're treated to a cuddly moral lesson - not to mention some Christmas caroling.


Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas

*1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Tyler Perry. With Tyler Perry, Kathy Najimy, Anna Maria Horsford, Tika Sumpter, Larry the Cable Guy, Eric Lively. Distributed by Lionsgate.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes, crude humor, sexual innuendos)

Playing at: area theaters