February 19, 2009

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Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (PG-13)
Tyler Perry mixes tales of horrible poverty and violence with Madea-inspired hilarity in Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, the third Madea movie.

And, hey, who am I to judge. If you have a formula that works (i.e. it makes you lots of money), why mess with it? And, roughly, the Tyler Perry formula is this: take a dramatic tale of poverty, violence and immorality and intersperse it with some B plot full of broad humor (or, in the case of some of his non-Madea movies like Meet the Browns or Daddy’s Little Girls, romance). Sometimes, the A and B plots are closely intertwined (the person fighting their way out of poverty against some straight-up evil villain is also the one falling in love). Sometimes, as in this latest movie with Madea, there’s a malnourished baby silkworm’s microscopic thread of connection between the A plot (we’ll call this movie’s A plot “Successful Friend, Prostitute Friend”) and the B plot (in this case, the Madea story).

In “Successful Friend, Prostitute Friend,” young lawyer Joshua (Derek Luke) has a promising career in the district attorney’s office and an impressive fiancée in Linda (Ion Overman), a rising legal star and the daughter of a prominent family. He’s in court to prosecute a routine prostitution case when he notices that the defendant is Candace (Keshia Knight Pullman — and if you’re thinking “why do I know that name” the answer is “Rudy Huxtable”), a childhood friend. Though they came from the same rough neighborhood, Candace’s life trajectory has been the exact opposite of Joshua’s. For the most melodramatic reason possible, he feels guilty about her plight and wants to help her out. But Candace doesn’t trust help and Linda doesn’t trust that Joshua’s relationship with Candace is as platonic as he claims.

So there’s Plot A — a made-it-out young lawyer tries to help his drug-addicted prostitute friend and in doing so imperils his engagement. Plot A has lots of crying and speechifying and Linda telling Josh not to let Candace and “the streets” drag him down.

Over in the groundlings-friendly Plot B, Madea (Tyler Perry) gets in trouble, is told not to get in trouble again, makes a feisty side-trip to Dr. Phil McGraw’s office, gets in trouble again and winds up in jail. In jail, she faces off against the weight-lifter with full-on beer-hall blonde braids named Big Sal (Robin Coleman) and sass-talks the down-to-earth reverend Ellen (a completely unrecognizable bad-ass Viola Davis, whose delivery of the word “sucker” alone makes me want her to get her own movie where she fights crime and takes no back-talk). Eventually, Madea’s plot comes into general orbit of Candace’s plot and the movie speeds toward resolution land.

It would be unfair to call Madea Goes to Jail a bad movie. This is not a movie that uses subtlety and nuance but then again those don’t seem to be things the movie was ever interested in achieving. The direction here seems to be “like that but bigger!” in all cases. Everyone emotes their lines like they’re playing to the half-blind, half-deaf granny at the back of a very big house. The tragedy is Dios mio!-tragic, the humor is big and broad enough to cover, well, to cover the increasingly cartoonish size of Madea’s bosom. I think particularly in Perry’s performance of Madea, the movie isn’t as successful (or as raw) as earlier Perry tales. Specifically, it seemed like Perry was having a harder time with Madea’s accent — as though he hasn’t done her in a while or has lost a bit of what made her a (sort of) natural character.

While this isn’t so much my big bowl of cookie dough ice cream with brownie chunks, I can absolutely see how this could be just the kind of comfort food that somebody wants. You have your funny, you have your melodrama, you have your ending that ties up the story neatly. And Tyler Perry? He has another hit. C-

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug content, some violence and sexual situations. Written and directed by Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail is an hour and 43 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate