Tyler Perry is one classy lady. He’s been cross-dressing as Madea, the 6-foot-5 angry black grandmother of your nightmares, for seven years now in plays, movies, and TV shows, and it’s made him huge amounts of money. There’s nothing subtle about the character, or, for that matter, the dead-serious social-problem melodrama in which she rather incongruously appears in “Madea Goes to Jail.” This is the first of Perry’s films I’ve seen, but apparently it fits his established formula, which is more readily associated with the crass than the classy. It’s true that he makes money out of stereotypes.
But Madea isn’t just a stereotype; she’s a force. Not for good or for evil, but for joy. Perry’s performance is strangely and beautifully understated, especially considering his outlandish drag; he knows how to unleash absurdity by simply bending a hip or speaking a little too fast. He never betrays Madea’s strong sense of composure for a cheap laugh–even as she vindictively bulldozes another woman’s car, her gaze remains steady and direct. This is a woman who has her dignity. There are strong (you could say preachy) Christian themes here, but Madea is no good church-going woman; she is a former plus-size stripper who tells an anger-management counselor that, once you’ve turned the other cheek one time, you run out of cheeks, so you might as well get out your Glock (which she keeps in her old-lady handbag). Without her, the film might collapse into sanctimony.
Which brings us to the movie’s actual plot, which has nothing to do with Madea. Josh (Derek Luke) is a wealthy prosecuting attorney who’s made his way “up from the gutter,” as he describes it; he’s about to marry Linda (Ion Overman), an equally powerful attorney who comes from a rich family and is repeatedly referred to as a “princess.” Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), a girl from Josh’s past, shows up on trial for prostitution; Josh’s desire to help her puts his engagement in jeopardy. However, Josh’s sister Ellen (Viola Davis), a minister passionate about getting young people off the streets, is ready to help him. That’s about it until the third act.
The situation is simple, even simplistic, and many scenes are clichés. Many of them work anyway, though, especially when Perry places juicy character details in the background. Josh’s charmingly slimy friend Chuck (RonReaco Lee) advises him to cave in to Linda’s selfish pressures in funny and revealing ways, and Ellen’s tough-love preacher act is redeemed by the smoldering intensity of Davis (who got an Oscar nomination for a different kind of intensity in Doubt).
The thing is, Madea doesn’t have to do very much to be wonderful; she just has to exist. The people involved in the real plot, on the other hand, have to make hard decisions and deal with troubled pasts. This is where Perry’s vision becomes clouded. The movie is trying to deal tastefully with gritty social realities—forced prostitution and drug addiction—and when Perry plays it simply he does well enough. For instance, we only have to see Candy’s garish pink hair and scared-animal behavior to feel sympathy and fear for her; and Luke’s performance is so deeply earnest that we don’t mind what a one-note nice-guy he is. But when Perry tries to show us Moments in the Lives of These Poor Women, we roll our eyes. The Other Prostitute, Donna (Vanessa Ferlito), informs Candy that she’s “different from the rest of us”—that she “could really get out of here.” She points at a book in Candy’s hands and says, “I seen you readin’ them books.” Oh boy. And then the scenes where we see Ellen’s “for real” preaching in action—she drops a vague Big Idea (e.g. “Addiction is a real disease”), then maybe repeats it, and everybody immediately understands that she is “for real.”
And then there are the scenes where we find out about the characters’ troubled pasts. These troubled pasts are exactly what you might predict them to be. This is fine, but it makes the movie’s attempts to turn them into Big Revelations mostly laughable: for instance, the scene where Josh finally reveals his history with Candy to Ellen, which has been hinted at heavily throughout, fails to impress. About two sentences into the story, we know exactly where it’s going; yet Josh goes as slowly as possible, getting more and more demonstratively emotional, as if Perry the Auteur is delaying the big reveal to keep us in suspense. Sheesh.
But then we forget about that. Luke bursts into tears; he repeats it, shaking his head, and we have to feel for him. We may not forget how ridiculous that buildup was, but we are suddenly there for him. It’s a big, shameless moment, but Perry and his actors pull us just far enough to halfway believe it. I certainly haven’t covered all the movie’s problems—the “prison sequence” near the end of the film is especially misguided—and it generally fails when it tries to go beyond the surface.
Still, Perry’s broad, populist approach understands that there is a lot of warmth and delight to be found on the surface. Even his visual style, which aims primarily at creating smooth, easily digestible surfaces, has a sneaky elegance sometimes, finding yearning and loneliness in comfortable, well-lit interiors. And Perry’s insane grandma of an alter ego is always there to pull him back when he gets too preachy. Madea is all on the surface, and overflowing. Her anarchy stretches Perry’s pat melodrama to capacity and keeps going on its own. Go ‘head, girl.
Rating: 3 out of 5