Tyler Perry has managed to build quite a moviemaking empire for himself while lurking just under the standard range of Hollywood’s radar. On his latest movie, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, he once again includes his name in the title and, as immodest as it may sound, it’s hard to blame him. A Tyler Perry movie is as close to a one-man operation as a movie can be; on this one, in addition to his credits as writer, producer and director, Perry plays three roles: Madea herself (a.k.a. Mabel Simmons), a hulking matriarch with a nonstop mouth and a no-nonsense attitude; Joe, her wheezing, pot-smoking, oxygen-gulping brother; and Brian, her solicitous, put-upon lawyer son.
Despite Perry’s title and his ubiquity, though, the main story he tells in Madea Goes to Jail deals with Josh (Derek Luke), an Atlanta deputy district attorney engaged to marry his colleague Linda (Ion Overman), a prosecutor with an 89 percent conviction rate and a matching cutthroat approach that she applies in equal measure to defendants and co-workers. When Josh finds that one of the defendants in court is a crimson-wigged streetwalker named Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam), he is driven to intercede on her behalf. Josh and Candace, it seems, were childhood friends whose lives diverged after one fateful night in college: Josh went on to law school and respectability, while Candace’s life spiraled out of control.
At first, Josh tries putting Candace in touch with Ellen (Viola Davis), an inner-city minister with an outreach program for women at the bottom of society, but Candace wants no “Bible thumper” meddling with her. But when a vicious pimp brutalizes Candace, she turns in desperation to Josh. This doesn’t sit well with Linda, who considers Candace one of “those people,” too tawdry and lowlife—and, probably, too pretty—to warrant the attention of the man she (Linda) intends to marry. So Linda sets about getting Candace out of the way with the same ruthlessness that has made her the star of the district attorney’s office.
Interlaced between these heaping dollops of soap opera are scenes involving Madea and her scrapes with the law and her churchgoing family. Madea is a caricature, but she’s a funny one, and if it comes to a choice between the crude drama of Linda-Josh-Candace and the crude comedy of Madea-Joe-Brian, the latter has to be given the edge—not only because it’s funnier, but also because it tends to puncture the pretensions of the drama. “Lord, do I have to listen to all this mellerdrammer?” Madea moans. Well, yes, ma’am, you do, since you’re in a Tyler Perry movie, and he doesn’t let his melodramatic pretensions remain punctured for long. But it’s comforting, in a way, to know that Perry, if only through his massive, smart-mouthed, irreverent alter ego, may be onto himself.
In time the machinations of Perry’s script will send both Candace and Madea to the slammer, where Madea protects Candace from harassment by a burly inmate known as Big Sal (Robin Coleman) and even weighs in on one of Ellen’s sermons to the inmates.
Perry is a bit of a conundrum. Working outside the conventional Hollywood orbit, he’s cranked out a number of plays, films and TV series, while attracting some of the best African-American actors in the business to help bring his two-dimensional characters to life. He’s tapped into a lucrative and underserved niche audience—largely black, female and churchgoing. But his work tends to be slapdash and poorly thought out—here, he seems to have written in such a hurry that he didn’t even settle on a last name for Candace (she’s Washington one minute, Collins the next). It may be that being his own producer, writer, director and star hasn’t served him all that well; he has no one to keep him sharp and focused.
Perry’s best movie to date is probably Why Did I Get Married? His talent, however heedless and untidy, is real. It’s hard to say the talent is wasted when his modestly budgeted movies make as much money as they do, but it’s clear that he can make better movies than Madea Goes to Jail. The pity is that, with the enthusiastic audience he’s already found, he may never feel the need to.