“Madea Goes to Jail” – Too Severe a Sentence – 1 & ½ popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

When you were little and the cartoon’s protagonist didn’t realize who the villain was, it drove you nuts. You screamed at the TV, “Watch out, she’s bad.” Happily, the hero always heard you. If you’d like to revisit this Drama #101 lesson in smugly knowing way more than the characters, Tyler Perry’s “Madea Goes to Jail” stands ready to oblige.

It is a testament to Mr. Perry’s popular franchise that, even whilst inexpertly injecting a serious segue to the doings this go-round, his terror in drag nonetheless accomplishes some of the usual hijinks expected of her/him. However, now enjoying the madness means avoiding much tedium, a challenge akin to stepping over dead bodies at a carnival.

The obviously unintentional duality of the film is curious at best. Expectedly, the humorous portion concerns our gun totin’ dynamo of rationalization, once again up against a judicial system that just doesn’t understand her. Interspersed is the somber, disjointed saga of a young lawyer being played for a fool by his scheming fiancée.

Sure, we know the stories must eventually intersect. But in the meantime we expect an overriding, comic finesse from cantankerous Mabel “Madea” Simmons. Fifteen or so poorly connected jokes more or less try to meet that clownish end. They fail to compensate for the stilted, inconveniencing screenplay.

Which makes you wonder if it were hubris, budget constraints or just poor judgment that precludes Mr. Perry from letting a proven dramatic entity at least direct, if not also rewrite, the serious stuff. Aside from cheapening the project, neglecting to do so proves rather unfair to a game, persevering cast.

Encumbered by little or no shading in the script, Derek Luke as Josh Hardaway, the bamboozled attorney who takes pity on a prostitute he knew way back when, practically comes off operatic. The same goes for pretty Ion Overman as his gal Linda, the ambitious prosecutor who’ll do whatever to get whatever.

Somehow, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Candace Washington, said femme de noir, dodges the miasma and constructs a fairly credible portrayal. Too bad there’s hardly anyone with whom to share that accomplishment. A brief, slightly more than tangential repartee with talented Viola Davis as Ellen, a street preacher/jail chaplain, makes little impact.

But none of this seems to bother Madea, who might as well be acting in a vacuum. Released Jack-in-the-Box style after each painfully sober interval, Tyler Perry’s Mrs. Doubtfire with an attitude rushes to center stage with yet another outrage against convention. So what if her freewheeling mischief is inconsistent. That’s the deal.

Wild spirit Madea must, when the moral of the story is told, be the central force behind a fair and just conclusion. But it has to appear, as Mr. Sinatra might observe, that she did it her way. In other words, by smashing all the rules to smithereens and resurrecting them in her own image. You see, the bad girl is good. That’s what she’s been trying to tell you.

No matter that she’s driving sans license. As she previously told a judge who suspended her motoring privileges and ordered anger management, she didn’t have one anyway. So it only stands to reason that, when an obnoxious matron steals her parking spot, she returns the favor by commandeering a forklift, raising the offending car and dropping it.

Perhaps if the loathsome lass didn’t happen to have a cop for a husband, and maybe if Madea had again come up before lenient Judge Mablean instead of His Honor Mathis, she’d have escaped punishment. But the Judge asks his bailiff the time. “Five to ten,” he notes, and that seems a fitting sentence. Hey, Perry has to get her into prison somehow.

Meanwhile, mean law machine Linda, increasingly threatened by Josh’s attentions to Candace, engineers an unheard of, seventeen-year sentence for the streetwalker. Alas, she and Madea, as well as the disparate plots, meet. But pity, once on the inside it seems Perry can’t sneak a cake loaded with some really funny lines to his alter ego.

Dull pauses and Madea’s administering of aphorisms to Candace dominate. Though, some humor does emanate from T.T. (Sofia Vergara), a Hispanic serial killer of eighteen men who should really be in the loony bin, as well as from Madea’s handling of the resident bully, Big Sal (Robin Coleman), whom she refers to as “young man.”

Granted, Mr. Perry’s Madea has traditionally arrived with social message in tow. But with this comically challenged installment he pads too few gags with a rather inept morality play. While diehard devotees may be willing to fish for the few good parts, non-fans won’t want to serve the hard viewing time “Madea Goes to Jail” comprises.

“Madea Goes to Jail,” rated PG-13, is a Lionsgate release directed by Tyler Perry and stars Tyler Perry, Keshia Knight Pulliam and Derek Luke. Running time: 103 minutes

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