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  Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail

Starring:Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Ion Overman
Directed by: Tyler Perry
Produced by: Reuben Cannon
Written by: Tyler Perry
Distributor: Lionsgate

     Tyler Perry has finally lived up to his potential and made a movie that works as a comedy, a drama, and, at its best, a seamless integration of the two genres.

     It has been a rocky climb to the top of his game for the playwright-turned-filmmaker, who despite colossal monetary success never nailed his own trademark: the soap opera-style dramedy. He first showed a knack for comedy but couldn’t get drama down in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion. He was pigeonholed by critics (myself included) as a writer/director who only made movies for Southern, Christian, African-Americans because they were his longtime fans, the only ones who uniformly forgave the flaws of his works. Perry then turned around and made the straight-drama Daddy’s Little Girls, his best picture to date but nonetheless not one that fit the “Perry mold,” which resulted in it being forgotten. Next, he detrimentally reinforced the idea that he was indeed just a tunnel-visioned salesman pandering to a niche audience with Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns; I even called the latter film “racist” because it relied entirely on empty stereotypes of blacks.

     But in the last year Perry has gotten into a groove. In September, he dished out The Family that Preys, the same type of dramedy he burst onto the scene with, anchored by two strong lead performances by Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard. And now comes Madea Goes to Jail, Perry’s first unqualified success in his signature style, fittingly headlined by the bombastically angry old black lady who made him famous. It’s a film that remains faithful to his diehard followers and one that is good enough to attract many new regular viewers. And given the man has always operated outside the expected parameters of a Hollywood filmmaker, I’m happy that he has finally made a movie we can all celebrate.

     Much of Perry’s recent success can be attributed to his ability to attract better actors, which has enhanced the dramatic elements of his pictures substantially. Bates and Woodard, for example, made The Family that Preys the decent (if still not entirely successful) picture that it was. This time around, Perry hired Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam (a far better actress than her resume might suggest), and Viola Davis to headline his accomplished cast. (He was never lacking in the comedy department because he plays both funny parts–husband and wife Madea and Joe—in costume.) While Madea Goes to Jail still qualifies as a soap-opera, it represents melodrama at its best; the viewer feels deeply for the characters even if they’re none too densely written because the emotions conveyed by the actors feel true.

     Luke plays Josh Hardaway, an Assistant District Attorney who is stunned to find that he has been assigned to the case of his old girlfriend Candy (Pulliam), who’s now a junkie and a prostitute living on the streets. Because he knows Candy, Josh must hand the case off to his fiancée and fellow attorney, Linda (Ion Overman). Linda, an overbearing and controlling nutcase, is on Josh’s case about the auspicious sympathy he shows Candy because she thinks he still has feelings for the young woman. She’s partially right, but Josh and Candy’s past relationship is far more complicated than she’ll ever know. To keep Josh from any potential temptations to stray from her conniving grasp, Linda decides to pad Candy’s record with priors so she’ll be put away for many years. In jail, Candy meets the infamous Madea, who all the while has been engaging in her usual tomfoolery, more criminally than usual. Madea first dodges charges of evading police in a high-speed chase because the officers didn’t read her Miranda Rights during the arrest, only to then get busted again for destroying a woman’s car by… well, if you haven’t seen the film’s trailer, I won’t spoil it for you. Drama, laughs, and efforts to expose the truth ensue, just as they should in a good soap opera.

     I’m sure I will get several e-mails saying I’m bonkers for suggesting that there is such thing as a “good soap opera.” While I have been known to enjoy daily episodes of “As the World Turns,” I assure you that I have not gone berserk. Yes, Perry has crafted a contrived, preposterous plot, but if one accepts the narrative as legitimate, then one is able to embrace the movie for its emotional values. Josh, Candy, and Linda may indeed be caricatures on the surface, but they represent real types of people with real problems. Even I, a white male from California who has nothing in common with them on the surface, was able to relate and sympathize.

    If Perry is still utilizing caricatures to tell stories, then how has he progressed as a dramatic filmmaker, you ask? Beyond his newfound ability to secure quality actors, Perry has matured in that he has learned to use said caricatures in a universal way. In Meet the Browns especially, it felt like the characters acted as they did simply because a very specific type of viewer in the target demographic would superficially relate. In Madea Goes to Jail, Perry works with the emotions involved to craft a product that’s accessible to most everyone on one level or another. His handling of the technical elements behind the camera has progressed as well; Madea Goes to Jail is his best staged and paced work to date, which is essential to keep the drama flowing in an organic way.

     Madea Goes to Jail is not only more accessible to a broader range of folks on an emotional level than previous Perry efforts, either; like we saw in The Family that Preys (notably Perry’s first film with a white main character), there’s more racial diversity than ever before, perhaps suggesting Perry is consciously working to broaden his audience.  Detractors may argue that Perry depicts non-African Americans in a poor light—the prominent white character causes Madea to commit the act that sends her to jail and the prominent Latino is an abusive pimp—but this represents a trivialization. As he has long done with those from his own community, Perry uses these characters to comment on the problems holding people back. But his message has never been this broad.

     But perhaps I’m skirting around the “point” of the film. Madea Goes to Jail’s success in anchoring melodrama in strong emotions and commenting on relations between races and inside the black community is not the movie’s selling-point; humor is. I’ve done a bit of a disservice to the film by not yet speaking directly to just how dang funny the comedy is, with Perry consistently finding new hilarious physical gags within his Madea creation. In economic times like these, it’s always nice to see a movie that is successful in making audiences laugh. But Perry has always nailed his jokes; the surprise here is that they coexist with the other material in a pleasing and natural manner. Madea Goes to Jail is overall consistently entertaining with a few nuggets of depth to sink one’s teeth into after the show, everything that a straightforward, mainstream Friday night picture should be.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 2.20.2009

Screened on: 2.26.2009 at the AMC Mission Valley 20 in San Diego, CA.


Click here to read my related column "How 'Madea' Brings Us Together".


Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail is rated PG-13 and runs 103 minutes.

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