For playwright and filmmaker Tyler Perry, the character of Mabel "Madea" Simmons has always been his entertainment trump card, his anarchic ace in the hole, so to speak. The loud-mouthed, gun-toting, pot-smoking grandma with a wealth of attitude and a penchant for pop culture cross-references has always been his audience window, his way for even the most jaded member of his revival like crowd to connect to his "Go with God" morality tales.
Over the last few years, however, Perry (who plays the bossy battleaxe in full blown comic drag) has tried to wean his fan base off of Madea. She was absent from his last film (The Family that Preys) and had only a minor cameo in Meet the Browns. But now she's back, and while Madea Goes to Jail is wholly watchable, it's also an uneven experience.
After a childhood lost in the ghetto, Assistant District Attorney Joshua Hardaway (Derek Luke) has become a successful attorney. He's also about to marry his rich and well connected co-worker Linda (Ion Overman). While in court, he runs into Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), a lifelong friend who has ended up on the street as a prostitute. Feeling guilty for something that happened while they were in college, he vows to help. Naturally, this doesn't go over well with his snooty fiancé or nosy office Romeo Chuck (RonReaco Lee). In the meantime, Madea (Perry) is also in hot water with the legal system. After an incident in the K-Mart parking lot, she's back before the judge facing five to ten, and not even her God-fearing daughter Cora (Tamela Mann) or numbskull neighbor Brown (David Mann) can help.
Madea Goes to Jail wants to be too many things at one time. It wants to be a heartfelt drama about second chances and forgiveness. It wants to be a full-blooded Bible-thumping missive, discussing the positive effects a belief in Jesus can have. It wants to show the struggles of life on the street. It wants to talk about responsibility and dependability. And it wants to be an uproarious comedy, our elderly heroine taking her "talk to the hand" mindset from the courthouse to the big house. That he manages to make most of it work is a testament to Perry's talent and the long hard road he traveled to success. That Madea Goes to Jail sometimes falls flat is also the fault of this overreaching approach.
Perry definitely plays best live. There, his combination of preaching and pratfalls (along with some amazing gospel singing) becomes almost interactive, the cast combining with the spectator to offer a shared experience. There are times when this film tries for the same strategy, Madea simply rambling on, awkward pauses planned to let the implied laughter die down before the next bit of riffing occurs. Luckily, most of Perry's ad libs are very funny. But we do sense a lack of editorial perception. Not everything Madea says is gold, and yet the storyline will literally stop so we can hear the crazed crone go off for no particular reason.
In many ways, Perry has never fully abandoned his roadshow ideal. He uses the moments of manipulative "realism" as buffers between the burlesque. We do care about Joshua and Candy, but their history is hindered by a lack of completeness. Similarly, we want to see Linda get what's coming to her, but the overtly bitchy quality of the character makes the comeuppance seem sedate, not satisfying. While his actors never let him down, Perry is still trying to find a cinematic consistency to his oeuvre. On stage, Madea makes even the most mawkish, maudlin material work. Here, she's just a stopgap to Tyler Perry advancing his motion picture prowess.
Bake me a cake with a file in it, will ya?