The Austin Chronicle

Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail

Rated PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Tyler Perry. Starring Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam, David Mann, Tamela J. Mann, Ion Overman, RonReaco Lee, Viola Davis.

REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Feb. 27, 2009

Here’s a question worth pondering: How does one analyze a movie that features a young man bursting into tears while admitting his complicity in the gang rape of a female friend, followed immediately by a slapsticky shouting match between TV’s Judge Mathis and an actor dressed like a 75-year-old woman? Where does one even begin to talk about a film that’s comfortable with juxtapositions of such magnitude? I’ve been watching movies my entire life, and I can honestly say I’ve never been more confused in a theatre than I was while watching Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail. And not because Madea doesn’t actually go to jail until the film is almost over (though also that); I just couldn’t find a way to reconcile the comic absurdity of Mable “Madea” Simmons (Perry) – the sassy, crass, belligerent, bawdy, self-righteous, over-the-top, I-can’t-believe-she-just-said-that center of the Perry multimedia empire (with outposts on television and Broadway) – with the maudlin melodrama of Candace Washington, a twentysomething drug addict and streetwalker played by Pulliam (The Cosby Show’s Rudy, another image I couldn’t quite get my head around), who is a lifelong victim of sexual and emotional violence. It’s as if Perry took Big Momma’s House, slapped it together with The Accused, closed his eyes, and prayed for coherence. Taken separately, the two parts of Madea would probably make for fine, if unremarkable, movies. Madea has already proven herself a cultural touchstone in other Perry hits such as Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion, and it isn’t hard to see why she’s so popular. Like Falstaff, W.C. Fields, and Larry David before her, Madea is the gust of fresh air we all crave when society gets too self-important to bear (though that is precisely where the comparison between Madea, Falstaff, Fields, and David ends; I want that on record). And God knows there wouldn’t be a Lifetime channel if melodramas with poor production values about abused women trying to turn their lives around didn’t strike a chord with the audience. Stick the two together, however, and you get what one might politely call a “muddled composition”: cubism and romanticism, Archie Bunker and Douglas Sirk, American cheese and wine tastings. Lucky for Perry, then, that he was able to snare Viola Davis. Davis, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award this year for her role in Doubt, is fantastic and formidable. As a preacher and social worker looking to help young women get off the streets, she’s a no-nonsense harbor in a huge, swirling tempest of nonsense – an NBA starter slumming it at the YMCA. And though she can’t save Madea Goes to Jail, she might be able to save a few of the souls who choose to sit through it.

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