Meet the Browns and the less-than-competent but intensely magnetic The Family That Preys back-to-back in 2008; and then you had to go and bring her back. That shrieking, inhuman Madea-thing. To make matters worse, you brought her back in a film that was, on the whole, as incomprehensible a piece of storytelling as anything in your whole career.
Not that Tyler Perry gives much of a damn what I think, given that Madea Goes to Jail, which bowed in February, 2009, remains the highest-grossing film of his career, and almost certainly for returning his iconic character to a leading role, three years after Madea's Family Reunion (not coincidentally, I gather, his second highest grossing film), and a year after her thankfully brief Meet the Browns cameo.
That cameo turns out to set up the new film's plot, or at least one portion of it. After being chased for miles by the police and finally caught and arrested, as seen in MtB, the gun-toting psychopath - or, to her fans and loved ones, sassy purveyor of no-nonsense advice and matriarchal guidance - is before Judge Mablean Ephriam (herself) yet again, and this time, there's no more sympathy or wrist-slapping; the judge doesn't even permit Madea's lawyer and nephew, Brian (Perry, in his third and, to date, final go as the only one of his recurring characters not wearing a fat suit) to mount a defense. This time, Madea is going to jail, just like the title says. Except not, because the arresting officers, terrified for their lives, forgot to read her Miranda Rights, and so she is off scot-free.* Madea's license is revoked; but since she's been driving without a license for years, this comes as not much of a concern to her. A cameoing Leroy Brown (David Mann) and Cora Brown (Tamela J. Mann) are on hand to cluck and try to Jesus up Madea, but as before, this paragon of sense in this hyper-Christian franchise seems to have very little interest in having anything to do with Jesus besides, presumably, hitting Him in the face with a pan. Incidentally, it only started to register with me now that Madea and Brown presumably had sex, since they are both Cora's parents, which is a horrible thought to begin with; and it gets even more horrible in the scene when the malapropism-inclined Brown insists, with unusual vehemence and sincerity, that Madea has a prostate.
A piece of advice: don't spend too much of Madea Goes to Jail waiting for Madea to go to jail, because it doesn't happen for a really long time. Perhaps, armed with this knowledge, I would not have had such an antsy time sitting through the endless opening acts, and would maybe not have been so confused by the film's structure, which jams two plotlines together without any organic flow at all. This is not, of course, the first time that a Tyler Perry script has slammed together two disparate plots, but it's always been fairly obvious how they relate from the very start (typically because they take place within a single family). Madea Goes to Jail has an A-plot centered on a completely disconnected set of characters going through a deadly-serious story of what a man who has escaped The Streets owes to those who have not been so fortunate. This story dominates the film; the effect is less like Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which two wholly unconnected stories "fit" together by means of thematically commenting each upon the other as they both develop; frankly, it's like Perry took another one of his attempts at social commentary, and at irregular intervals, jammed a Madea scene right in there, because people love to watch Madea. I don't mean to accuse Perry of pandering for money - that is, in fact, one thing that I could never, ever accuse him, for there is too much obvious sincerity floating right on the surface of everything he does. Still, the Madea sequences in Madea Goes to Jail are a most peculiar breed of comic relief that simply asserts itself without any story logic underpinning it. Imagine, if you will, that every ten minutes, Leaving Las Vegas put itself on hold in order to spend a scene with the Klump family in The Nutty Professor, and you have approximated the feeling of the first 70 minutes of Madea Goes to Jail.
The actual plot of the film is fairly standard stuff. Standard, at least, in a career as fearlessly attached to hokum as Perry's: Josh Hardaway (Derek Luke) is an assistant DA who is, we are constantly reminded, right on the brink of a major step up in his career, with a fiancée who is also an assistant DA, Linda (Ion Overman), and we learn this fact in the cutest way possible, when they have to swap cases at the last minute because he has to recuse himself on account of knowing a defendant from way back in the day. For a few seconds, it almost feels like there might be a chance for some Adam's Rib action, but that is so self-evidently ridiculous that I don't know why I felt the need to share my feeble hopes with all of you. The important bit, anyway, is that the defendant in question is prostitute Candace Washington (Keshia Knight Pulliam, doing one of those "no, see, I'm TOTALLY a grown-up" roles so beloved of former child stars) or "Candy" on the streets, a former college flame of Josh's who fell on hard times and got herself a doozy of a crack habit. Acutely aware of his responsibility to those he left behind - and, we will learn, particularly aware of his guilt in getting Candace to this state - Josh decides to take her under his wing and try to fix her life.
Here's the point at which the wheels fall off. That is to say, Madea already stole the wheels and has been chucking them at passers-by, screaming "Hallelujer!" at the top of her lungs for some time now, but if there were wheels on the film, this is where they'd fall off. For once again, Perry games his drama by placing a particularly awful villain in place against the largely decent, striving folks who serve as the vehicle for his redemptive morality plays; and in this case, that means Linda against the very nice Josh and the sad, broken, but warm-hearted Candace. Except, there's nothing Linda does or says that makes her a very credible villain. Oh, Perry does try: he pointedly has her always refer to her fiancé as "Joshua", and she speaks in unusual clipped, precise language compared to every other character. But quite by accident, the film in fact manages to make her seem like a perfectly reasonable human being: everything she accuses Josh of doing, he has in fact done, and when she says in disbelief that her fiancé is treating the prostitute in his home with more tenderness than he has ever shown her, his betrothed, the look of absolute shell-shock on her face leaves us with no doubt at all that this is exactly the case.
In fact, given how routinely Josh replies to her concerns by saying, in effect, "you don't need to know that", Linda is closer to being the victim than the aggressor, which is why in the clinch, Perry has to start throwing all kinds of villainous rants and wicked behaviors her way. It doesn't work - it does, that is, in terms of completing the narrative and resolving all the plot threads, but it doesn't leave Linda feeling like anything resembling a credible character. She's a narrative element with two legs and a posh accent, and the film's melodramatic arc refuses to take off on account of how badly the writer-director botches the key component of the melodramatic antagonist.
Eventually, Madea goes to jail, and so does Candace, and a few other colorful sorts (including Sofia Vergara as a serial killer, a comic performance so obnoxiously untethered that I cannot begin to fathom how to describe it, or relate it to anything else in the movie; maybe the intent was to make Madea seem grounded), and, in essence, an entirely different movie begins. And while I would still not have enjoyed this movie very much, at least I can get my head around it, and it really does seem like there ought to be a feature's worth of material on the "Madea gives brassy advice to inmates" scenario, and not just a four-month montage against an unusually fake-looking flipping calendar effect. But if Tyler Perry did the things that a white atheist could get his head around, I suppose he would no longer be Tyler Perry.
For once, I'm not entirely sure that I'm happy that he is, either. Madea Goes to Jail is a particularly bad example of his work: his performance of Madea has drifted far into the broadest kind of mugging, sort of like when Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow transitioned from being a loopy comic performance of a relatively straightforward pirate to being a caricature of a cartoon glam rocker in pirate gear - it was never grounded, but it was certainly never so unappealingly grotesque as it is here. And his directorial chops, never the most refined in the world, collapsed back in after the relative subtlety and thoughtfulness of The Family That Preys; just compare their two boilerplate montages, which in Family is still sort of upbeat and dramatically appropriate, while here, it inelegantly shoves in an ellipsis that suggests the best part of the story is what we're not getting to see. The musical choices are flat as hell - Tom Jones's "She's a Lady" in the opening credits, for God's sake, which alone should disqualify Perry from being counted as an African-American filmmaker - and the visuals are uninspired, cutting from two-shots to close-ups with the thudding repetition of a three-camera sitcom from the early '90s. Now, at least, he had the time and money to show his own characters sharing the frame, so the clumsy editing used to keep Madea and Brian apart from each other in Madea's Family Reunion is thankfully absent.
In all, then, this is a wreck; all of his films are wrecks, but this one is a wreck. It has the gonzo theatrics and none of the inspiration; it is a tedious melodrama stuck on top of shrill comedy, and the two parts are both the worse off for the combination. Perhaps it's just my fault for not having the right comic tastes, but I am frankly content to never understand the appeal of the slurring, slapdash performance Perry gives here, gaudy enough to make the Madea of yore seem like the height of wit.