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Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail

Other // PG-13 // June 16, 2009
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 27, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
Around the time of its release, playwright turned cultural phenom Tyler Perry started hinting that he was going to "kill off" his most famous creation. That's right, just as his massively popular Madea character was making her way to jail, the creative cottage industry that brought her to life was looking for a way to make her next onscreen journey end at the cemetery. Of course, money changes everything, and when Madea Goes to Jail ended up banking more money than several of his drag-less dramas (including the mediocre The Family that Preys), Perry had second thoughts. Now the crazy old coot plays a major part in the upcoming I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and here's betting that there is some future variation on Madea "doing something" in the works as well. All of which begs the question - was Goes to Jail really so good as to cause such a creative reconsideration. Or is it all about the Benjamins. Oddly enough, after viewing the final film, that's a difficult question to answer outright.

The Plot:
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Hardaway had to fight hard to get out of the ghetto. Yet he's never really forgotten his roots. Even as he prepares to marry his rich and well connected co-worker Linda, a part of him feels lonely and lost. One day, he runs into Candy, an old friend from the 'hood who has really fallen on hard times. She's now a prostitute, and Josh feels guilty about it. Seems something happened while they were both in college that forever changed their individual fates. So naturally, he wants to help. This does not go over well with his snooty fiancé or nosy office pal Chuck. They sense something is up between the former paramours. Meanwhile, Madea Simmons is in hot water with the legal system. After an incident in the K-Mart parking lot, she's back before the judge facing hard time in the slammer. This time, not even her God-fearing daughter Cora or that numbskull neighbor Mr. Brown.

The DVD:
When it comes to Tyler Perry and film criticism, a specific pattern is forming. There has been and always will be a contingent who believes everything he does, from religious-themed gospel-tinged theatrical works to jerryrigged rip-offs of those spiritual stage productions, represents the worst of race-based minstrel showboating. No matter his good deeds outside of the industry, or his desire to provide for an underserved entertainment demographic, his name will always be equated with dumb, drag show stereotyping. On the other hand, Perry is a profit-making marvel. His movies have always done well, his fanbase appearing more than happy to support even the most mundane of his efforts. Even uneven efforts like Why Did I Get Married? have made a mint. With TV, film, books, and theater as part of his thriving personal empire, there just no stopping him. He appears in it for the long haul. In truth, however, one imagines that the day Tyler Perry stops trading on his ghetto thug old lady persona is the day when all cartoonish types get a solid, cinematic heavy-ho.

So perhaps we can toss aside all the context, avoid the sagging social commentary concerns, and simply address Madea Goes to Jail as a movie - a clear member of the comedy genre within an artform that's been over 100 years in the making. Sure, it may seem unfair to do away with all of Perry's perceived filters, but when it comes right down to it, that's the only way to judge this film fairly. And you know what, the mister behind Ms. Simmons really doesn't need to worry. The man clearly knows funny. He understands character and the exaggeration of same. He recognizes ethnic and racial archetypes and exploits them - gingerly - for potential laughs. His burlesque is never mean-spirited or snide. Instead, he trades on age old humanity, flaws like brashness (Madea), naiveté (Mr. Brown), and rudeness (Joe) to cultivate his comic view. It's really no different than Richard Pryor and Mudbone, or Whoopi Goldberg and Fontaine. It's the truth taken out and tweaked - in Perry's case, a little more ridiculously than realistically.

Yet it's the always present maudlin melodramatics that will give most audiences pause. Perry the filmmaker has yet to find the right balance between pathos and pratfalls. His characters often find themselves in situations that seem downright detestable, and yet they are never really held responsible for being so blind. When our young lawyer wants to help his prostitute pal, does he really have to face off against one of the most conniving harpies ever to share a prosecutor's office space? Equally disconcerting, did Ms. Civil Servant have to be so competitive and career-oriented that she'd screw it all up and meddle with evidence? Perry always does this - delivering knock-out comedic gems as Madea goes off on her prison pals, only to undermine said tone with telegraphed conflict and villainy straight out of Uncle Tom's Cabana. There are other issues as well - Perry tackles too many subjects and introduced far too many subplots, and several supposedly important characters are shuttled aside for more Bible-thumping pronouncements. But it's safe to say that Madea Goes to Jail manages to overcome most of them. If rising above potential stumbling blocks is victory, then Tyler Perry is indeed one successful artist.

The Video:
On the technical side of things, Lionsgate delivers a delightful DVD presentation. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is beautiful--clean and crisp with gorgeous color correction and a rich depth of detail. Atlanta and its surrounding settings have never looked better than in this engaging, atmospheric transfer.

The Audio:
The sound is equally good, though there is no real difference between the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. In fact, when music isn't involved, both aural offerings deliver decipherable dialogue and superb spatial ambiance.

The Extras:
Offering nothing more than a few EPK level featurettes, the Madea Goes to Jail DVD does its best to showcase the genial family atmosphere on a Perry set. We see how Madea comes to life, how Mr. Brown maintains his bumbling ways, how you handle filming in a pseudo-prison setting, and how carefully these films are cast. Sure, the six mini-docs here are nothing more than passable puff pieces, but they do illustrate the amount of love and attention Petty puts into his films. You may not always like them, but they definitely derive from the heart.

Final Thoughts:
If you do a bit of Googling, you'll realize that this critic has long been a Tyler Perry apologist. It's not just because his work deserves it. Indeed, many of his sensational stage plays have brought as many laughs as tears to this mean old middle aged man's soul. But because of how readily he is marginalized, because of the ubiquitous bile is very name inspires, yours truly has eased up on the rash judgments and taken time to figure out what the entire Tyler Perry universe is all about. Without a character like Madea, Goes to Jail would be junk. It would fail as both a drama and a focus-less comedy. But with him/her in place, what we wind up with is a laughfest interspersed with some less than effective plot points. As a result, Madea Goes to Jail earns a borderline Recommended rating. Some may prefer to Rent It first, if only because of previous experiences with the multi-hyphened phenom. While you may not need such a reminder, remember this - Tyler Perry is not necessarily making movies for you. Come at him with contempt and you'll get the same in return. Agree to meet him on his own terms however, and you're likely to enjoy what you see.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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