As I was watching Tyler Perry’s latest movie, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, my co-critic Justin Souther came into the theater and sat with me for a while. A little way into the proceedings a character entered the film and Justin asked, “Is that Tyler Perry, too?” Without thinking, I said that it was: “That’s him in his ‘Brian the lawyer’ incarnation.” At that moment, I realized that like some soap-opera fan, I actually know all of Perry’s recurring characters and their relationships to each other. And I was deeply frightened by that. The world of Tyler Perry has—after sitting through seven Perry movies—percolated into my brain. It’s clearly a case of an occupational hazard, me going for best of two falls out of three with a cultural icon—and losing.
There’s no denying that Perry is a cultural icon, regardless of how you feel about his work. Similarly—apart from wanting to argue the point—Mr. Perry’s admirers could not conceivably care less what I have to say about the man or his work or his latest film. They know what they’re getting—they ought to, since this is another case of Perry filming one of his plays that’s already available in recorded form on DVD. (Based on character names, however, it appears that the film departs considerably from the earlier play version.) They know that Perry is going to do his Madea drag act and that it will be in support of some worthy message wrapped in a melodramatic story. The bad guys—and gals—will be of the mustache-twirling variety. The comedy will be extremely broad. Virtue will be rewarded and God will be name-dropped. And if that’s what you’re looking for, Madea Goes to Jail will not disappoint you.
This latest offering is a definite step backwards for Perry as a filmmaker. Both of his 2008 releases, Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns and, especially, Tyler Perry’s the Family That Preys, were much more sophisticated as filmmaking, but they also showed a definite falling off at the box office. Meet the Browns was a cheat, in that it promised more Madea than it delivered (its ending is a kind of built-in trailer for this film). The Family That Preys only offered Perry in a bad wig (bad wigs are almost trademark) as a character other than the ones he’s known for. As a result, it became his second least successful film (and his most expensively produced), only pulling in about five million more than Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls (2007). (Factoring in the budgets, Daddy’s Little Girls actually netted more.) It’s hardly surprising that he’d head back to Madea-land, since his biggest grosser was Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). And Perry is nothing if not a businessman—the borrowed locations, constant Coca-Cola product placements and threadbare budgets attest to that.
What we have here is a ridiculous melodrama about an assistant district attorney (Derek Luke), who’s all set to marry another assistant district attorney (TV actress Ion Overman), until he runs into an old friend (Keshia Knight Pulliam in an ill-fitting red wig) who’s been arrested for prostitution. The meeting provokes a crise de conscience on his part (there’s much talk about “what happened that night”) that causes him to want to help her—much to the distaste of his upscale (and patently no-good) fiancée. True feelings emerge and duplicity ensues.
While all this is going on, there’s an unrelated plot involving Madea, her dope-smoking hedonistic brother Joe (Perry in the usual high-school drama department old-age makeup), the Browns (David and Tamela J. Mann) and Brian (Perry), who tries vainly to keep Madea from a well-deserved stint in the big house. After more than an hour of this has passed, we finally get to Madea—and, of course, the wrongfully railroaded prostitute—in jail. Predictability follows.
It’s all hokey and ham-fisted, cheaply made and appallingly edited. Even good actors like Derek Luke and Viola Davis (Doubt) are at a loss to get past the improbable dialogue and the even more improbable characters they’ve been handed. In the meantime, Perry mugs and chews the scenery, while the ever-annoying David Mann mangles the English language and wears ugly clothes. (One of the few times I laughed came when Madea tells him, “God hates you. You were grown in a Petri dish.”) To goose things, Perry has roped in everyone from Dr. Phil to Whoopi Goldberg to Al Sharpton for cameo appearances. In all fairness, the double-talk routine with Dr. Phil is one of the movie’s brighter moments—too bad it was in the trailer. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug content, some violence and sexual situations.