20 February 2009
At the movies: Madea Goes to Jail.
Polyhyphenate Tyler Perry is back, and this time he’s brought back his most beloved character, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. Though in all honesty, Madea doesn’t actually go to jail until an hour in, and we’ll be spending most of our time with Joshua (Derek Luke), an attorney engaged to the district’s most successful prosecutor who finds himself in a bind when Candy (Keshia Knight-Pulliam, Rudy Huxtable herself), a childhood friend and college associate in the midst of a stretch of life on the streets as a drug-addicted prostitute, surfaces in the middle of the courthouse.
Much drama ensues, involving judicial fraud, unspecific detox (we never know exactly what drugs Candy and her friend Donna are on), bad wigs, and assaultive pimpcraft. As all that is going on, Madea’s decades-long rap sheet finally catches up with her and sends her into jail, where we get a decent prison laundry beat-down and the film’s moral lesson, delivered by Academy Award nominee Viola Davis as the street minister Ellen.
We also get a grand moral faceoff at a plush wedding (Perry loves plush weddings), and it’s a rather stunning piece of work that manages to serve as a force of karmic retribution and a cold-blooded cut at the exact same time. Also, Sofia Vergara deserves special recognition, because it wasn’t until about five minutes into her performance (as Madea’s Björkian serial killer cellmate) that I realized that she wasn’t actually Parker Posey.
It says volumes about Perry’s perspective as an entertainer that Davis is given loads more to do here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in Doubt; everybody does everything in a Perry film, and though that leaves things in a rather sloppy state (a too-abrupt ending and several unfortunately-improvised scenes, the lack of real structure to several sequences), that’s part of what makes them such fun and unique.
There’s a vaudevillian impulse in his films, a chef’s approach to finding balancing and contrasting amounts of comedy, drama, violence, and religion, and a distinct sense that everyone should be able to get everything out of the proceedings (which suits a film featuring cameos from Frank Ski, the women of The View, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Dr. Phil, and Judge Mathis). Which is fine by me. As long as Perry keeps including the gun-toting, treacle-diminishing, no-nonsense absurdity of Madea in his morality plays, I’ll happily keep getting tickets to them.