Watching a Tyler Perry movie is like wandering around in a fog of cinematic confusion. Invariably the question arises, “Just what kind of movie am I watching?” A melodrama? A comedy? A morality tale? A message movie? A Sunday morning sermon? All five in one? Radical shifts in genre, tone and mood incline me to diagnose his work as bipolar, if applying psychiatric diagnoses to films were possible.
But when it comes to criticisms about his directorial aims and style, it appears Perry is much like his beloved character, the feisty, gun-toting matriarch Madea — what Perry does, he does his own way; critical concerns don’t appear to be of any concern to him.
Madea Goes to Jail presents two equally-weighted storylines. The first one covers the efforts by assistant district attorney Joshua Hardaway (Derek Luke) to save from the streets old friend Candace Washington (Keshia Knight Pulliam). And in the second, the story of how her anger management problems send Madea (Tyler Perry) straight to jail. Madea’s police and courtroom antics are well known to Perry fans; her clashes with the law are the running joke in the previous three movies. So landing in jail is simply the natural progression of that storyline. Madea has the misfortune, however, to come before the judges of television court — making brief cameo appearances are the hanging-judge Greg Mathis (Judge Mathis) and the no-nonsense Mablean Ephriam (Divorce Court). Even Dr. Phil joins the fun as Madea’s court-appointed anger management therapist.
This time out, Perry wields a tighter reign on the proceedings. There’s a lot less sermonizing, which is a good thing. But what he always brings to his stories are his deep Christian beliefs and values — loyalty, friendship, honesty, accountability, forgiveness and redemption. In the past, he’s used a heavy hand integrating those values with his story. In Madea Goes to Jail, he uses more subtlety, and the result is less preachy.
However the juxtaposition of the two stories, the melodramatic complications of Joshua and Candace to the over-the-top legal antics of Madea, is akin to experiencing cinematic whiplash. The stories aren’t integrated in any way. Each one could easily have been made into a movie of its own.
But what would a Tyler Perry/Madea movie be without the trademark craziness and humor? Fans will be thrilled to know that Madea runs amok and takes no prisoners. It’s her show. For me, of all the Madea films, this is the most unbridled and hysterically funny one yet. It’s important to note for viewers unfamiliar with the previous Madea films, that the humor here isn’t subtle or sophisticated. But if you like broad physical comedy with a revenge-seeking, 6 foot 5 inch grandmother inclined to tackle police, judges, civilians, and cell mates alike, then you may enjoy Madea Goes to Jail.
That being said, Tyler Perry isn’t Spike Lee. He’s unlikely to receive any major movie awards, at least not anytime soon. But as the African American experience continues to make strides into major studio productions, Perry serves as a vital voice for the values of the black community.