Madea Goes to Jail
Director : Tyler Perry
Screenplay : Tyler Perry
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Tyler Perry (Madea / Joe / Brian), Derek Luke (Joshua Hardaway), Keshia Knight Pulliam (Candace Washington), David Mann (Brown), Tamela J. Mann (Cora), RonReaco Lee (Chuck), Ion Overman (Linda), Vanessa Ferlito (Donna), Viola Davis (Ellen), Sofía Vergara (T.T.), Robin Coleman (Big Sal), Bobbi Baker (Tanya), Aisha Hinds (D.A. Fran Walker)
The essence of Madea Goes to Jail--and pretty much all of Tyler’s Perry’s movies, for that matter--is captured quite intriguingly in the movie’s teaser poster, which at first glance would seem to be advertising an austere European art film. Set against a stark white background, it features the film’s impressive cast just above the title near the bottom, and the only image on the poster is in the upper lefthand corner: a dove that appears to be made of dissipating smoke within which we can just make out the image of the film’s title character with her head bowed and eyes closed as if in prayer. If you have never heard of Tyler Perry or his outsized alter ego Mable “Madea” Simmons, you couldn’t be blamed for surmising from the poster that the film is a serious drama, which, of course, it is. But, at the same time, it is also a raucous social comedy featuring a returning cast of exaggerated characters who are in constant tonal conflict with the film’s more serious subject matter.
But, of course, that is what we have come to expect from a Tyler Perry movie (especially one featuring Madea), and in some sense we would be disappointed if he did otherwise. After all, there are lots of filmmakers who make heavy-handed dramas about loss, pain, and abuse, and there are lots of filmmakers who make comedies about social rebellion, but how many filmmakers make them both at the same time? Perry is a unique cinematic voice, and even though he isn’t for every taste, the consistent success of his films (starting with 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the only one he hasn’t directed) suggests that his message is cutting across traditional audience divides. It is all too easy for critics to turn their nose up at Perry’s populism, not to mention what some see as the inherent hypocrisy of social message films that celebrate the Christian values of faith and forgiveness while also embracing criminal eccentricity, but that’s precisely what makes his output so intriguing. If Madea Goes to Jail doesn’t work quite as well as some of his previous efforts, it certainly isn’t for lack of trying.
Perry, who wrote, produced, and directed, once again takes up his two-pronged narrative approach by telling a pair of essentially separate, but ultimately interweaving narratives, one comedy and one drama. The comedic prong of the story centers around Madea, Perry’s most beloved creation. A no-nonsense, propriety-flaunting grandma whose massive girth provides back up for her mouth and her anger-management issues, Madea finally lands in the slammer after one too many instances of getting even with those who set her off (which is just about everyone). Madea is the rampant, untamed id to Perry’s otherwise responsible sense of social drama, which tends to be suffused with object lessons in humility and forgiveness. Thus, while some see Madea as a hypocritical distraction that allows Perry to preach one thing while generating guffaws by celebrating its opposite, it seems to me that Madea functions primarily as a humorous example of how not to live, even as she also embodies, at heart anyway, the fundamental decencies of tough love and blunt honesty. Even though she frequently loses her temper, it pays to remember that Madea’s outbursts are always in response to others’ trespasses, virtually all of which we can identify with on some level (who hasn’t wanted to trash the car of some obnoxious yuppie who stole our parking spot?).
The dramatic story line concerns Josh Hardaway (Derek Luke), a good-hearted assistant district attorney who has worked his way out of the ghetto into a respectable life and career, both of which are about to be solidified via his impending marriage to Linda (Ion Overman), another assistant DA with grand ambitions and a privileged background. When Josh crosses paths with Candace (former Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam), an old childhood friend whose life has devolved into prostitution and drug addiction, he feels compelled to help her in any way that he can, even though it infuriates Linda that he is investing his time and energy on someone who she feels should be left to her own devices. While Perry’s social commentary has often focused on the abuse women endure at the hands of men, here he refocuses on broader socioeconomic issues, with the ultimate message being a cautionary warning against assuming, as Linda does, that the down-and-out are always in such a position because of something they did. Perry certainly emphasizes the need for personal responsibility, especially via a tough-love minister played by Viola Davis, but also suggests that life is a complex series of events that can send us down drastically different roads, as evidenced by Josh and Candace.
The dramatic elements of the film work well enough, although at times they feel somewhat labored, which is why it is always a welcome respite when Madea returns to the screen, especially once the two storylines intersect with Madea and Candace winding up in the same prison. It is here that Perry’s wildly radical tonal shifts seem the most extreme because, after taking so seriously the violence of the street life (complete with abusive pimps and corrupt employers), he stages the prison sequences in the comedic vein, with Madea sharing a cell with a giggly and truly bizarre Spanish serial killer (Sofía Vergara) and later putting the prison bully (Robin Coleman) in her place. By that time, though, Perry has so thoroughly established the quick maneuvering from comedy to drama that it makes its own kind of weird sense, with both ends of the emotional spectrum working to underscore what is surely Perry’s most cherished value: blunt honesty.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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