Times are tough for Tyler Perry these days. With critical accolades in short supply and box office returns slowing to a worrisome degree, it’s time to bust out the old drag routine again to stimulate the faithful. Discounting a microscopic cameo in last year’s “Meet the Browns,” “Madea Goes to Jail” is the first time the titular Georgian hell-raiser has assumed a starring role in three years. I’ll be honest: she wasn’t missed. An unpardonably primitive, repetitive dramedy that promises a farce yet delivers the same tiresome Perry brand of spiritual and empowerment hooey, the “Jail” of the title is more apt as a metaphor for the ticket buyer’s situation than a comic location for Madea to prance around within.
When a destructive freeway chase lands smart-mouthed Madea (Tyler Perry) in court, further outbursts of verbal abuse and anger management issues send her to prison, where she finds friendship with the ladies of the cellblock (including Vanessa Ferlito and Sofia Vergara). One of these wayward souls is Candace (Keisha Knight Pulliam, the once and future Rudy Huxtable), a junkie prostitute with ties to Joshua (Derek Luke), a prominent Assistant D.A. who long ago derailed the young woman’s life and now desires to help rebuild it. The newfound attention upsets Joshua’s fiancée (Ion Overman), who uses her deceitful legal power to separate the two and return Joshua to his rightful place as a spineless husband-to-be.
While the marquee reads “Madea Goes to Jail,” the true title should be, “Madea Goes to Jail Sometime in the Third Act, So Here’s This Nonsense about a Hooker and Her Gang Rape Enabler.” In classic Perry form, “Jail” is a schizophrenic production that wishes to indulge its spastically comedic roots while dishing up some reheated melodrama that the diminishing fanbase has come to treasure. The division in tone is a stunner, with Perry trying to employ his violent Madea tomfoolery as a rodeo clown while letting topics of drug addiction, sexual abuse, and vocational deception take center stage. It’s a bit of a cheat to promise viewers one direction while clearly favoring another, but it wouldn’t be Perry if the film wasn’t outrageously irrational, flimsily edited, acted with rafter-quaking severity, and scripted with Magic Markers. I’d probably feel cheated at this point if Perry actually made a concentrated effort to maintain a steady dramatic tone.
How strange is this picture? At one point Perry asks Luke to give his all to camera, pouring his heart out as the character struggles with a painful realization of guilt. Oh, how the tears flow! And then the filmmaker cuts to a scene where Madea beats up a team of bailiffs as she’s dragged to the big house. So much for letting the nuance sink in.
“Jail” doesn’t deviate from the template set by the early Perry pictures: serving up questionable Jesus-scented messages on accepting personal responsibility for wrongful actions (a concept given 90 seconds of air before it’s oddly paved over for the traditional white knight conclusion), confusing character motivations to a point of unintentional laughter, and permitting the cast to mug for the camera until their cheekbones bleed.
Obviously Perry takes the gold medal in the overacting department, again using Madea as a vessel for his sassmouth energy and improv-heavy one-liners. With Madea beating up cops, ruining the day for nasty Caucasians everywhere, and refusing to accept psychological deconstruction (a subplot the welcomes a Dr. Phil cameo), the character is as wily as ever in “Jail,” making the divide between plots impossible to suitably bridge. It’s a shame Perry refuses to take the character anywhere new, as a little change of pace might actually push Madea into the alien arena of earned laughs, and not the semi-minstrel thin-ice pond she skates upon now.
“Madea Goes to Jail” is a softball motion picture even for Perry, who only uses the film to broaden his empire (characters/newfound sitcom stars Cora and Leroy Brown cameo), not to challenge his abilities as an actor or storyteller.