Viola Davis probably spent at least a few minutes this weekend pondering her karma. The 2009 Academy Awards represent the pinnacle (to date) of Davis’s solid career as a working actor, and while she didn’t have a prayer of winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in Doubt, the nomination rewards thirteen years of thankless roles like the housekeeper in Far from Heaven. Meanwhile, the latest entry in the much-derided Madea series, in which Davis plays a tough-love minister to junkies and prostitutes, opened two days before her shining moment. Talk about timing.
Having never seen a minute of Tyler Perry’s work in film or television, I didn’t know what to expect from Madea Goes to Jail, Perry’s latest film about a physically imposing, ostensibly comical woman, beyond the basic premise of a man in a pendulously-beracked fat suit delivering ethnically targeted patter. Perry’s reputation for lowbrow gags masquerading as humor, not to mention the frayed edges of the black-man-in-drag concept, made me pessimistic, but the prospect of a deliciously evil review cheered me.
Eh. Truth be told, it’s hard to work up much venom for Madea Goes to Jail. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good or even an okay movie. In fact, Madea is two very discordant plotlines shoehorned into 103 jarringly edited minutes: one an overwrought, cornball drama about a young prosecutor helping out a friend who fell on hard times; the other what I can only assume is the typical Madea storyline of an irascible woman cutting a wide swath through a world of idiots with her twin blades of irreverent old lady jive and an imposing, dreadnaught bosom. In fairness, however, Perry does manage some chuckle-worthy scenes and even a couple of nice “filmmaker” type moments. Madea had me checking my watch every ten minutes, but it’s no worse than a couple of hours of random sitcom programming on any given night, and Perry avoids the clichés and stereotypes that often characterize broad humor aimed at African-American audiences. Not that there isn’t plenty of that broad humor, but Madea is largely populated by ordinary people going about their ordinary business, who happen to be black. In an era when Eddie Murphy’s Modern Minstrel Show is still getting work as a step-‘n-fetch donkey, that’s something.
As Madea Goes to Jail opens, the titular character (Perry) faces courtroom justice over the latest in a long line of physical altercations with various members of the public who keep causing her grief. Hotshot young prosecutor Linda (Ion Overman) must release Madea, however, because the police failed to Mirandize her. The movie then branches as the story follows Linda and her lawyer fiancé, Joshua (Derek Luke), who are engaged to be married, and Madea, who the judge predicts cannot possibly stay out of trouble for long.
While at the courthouse, Joshua recognizes a childhood friend named Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam) as she’s being arraigned for prostitution. Although Candace reacts with cynical hostility to Joshua’s putting up her bail, it soon becomes obvious that she needs a helping hand to get her life straightened out. Feeling guilty over a mysterious incident from his school days with Candace, Joshua works with a hardnosed minister (Davis) to find opportunities for Candace to get off the street. Over the adamant opposition of Linda — and her stock line, “Those people need to help themselves” — Joshua lets Candace sleep on his couch, putting his relationship with his conniving, vindictive fiancé at risk.
Meanwhile, Madea goes on her way, sparring with selfish drivers, berating her bemused family, and running her mouth non-stop in a distinctive prattle bearing a striking resemblance to Murphy’s pioneering black-comic-in-drag efforts in The Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps, and to a lesser degree Martin Lawrence’s noble work in Big Mama’s House. To the extent Madea finds its stride, it’s in the sequences in which Madea barbs her bovine relatives or gets her short fuse lit by annoying white people. Madea can tell off a moronic son-in-law or a self-absorbed honky with the best of them, and Perry delivers enough decent zingers and finger-waving soliloquys to pass the time affably. The plotting and dialogue on that side of the story somehow manage to be simultaneously preposterous and unimaginative, but nobody’s seeing this thing for its contemplative dramatic arc. We want some goddamn cracker-baiting!
And that’s the frustrating thing about a movie already benefitting from low expectations: Perry refuses to stay with the one thing he’s somewhat good at. The segments of Madea actually featuring, you know, Madea contain enough entertaining material for a decent series of five-minute sketches on an ethnically conscious show like “In Living Color.” Diluted and padded to occupy about an hour of the film, those bits are already stretched tighter than Nicole Kidman’s forehead, interspersed with way, way too many lame jokes like Madea’s son-in-law referring to a colonoscopy as a “Coca-cola-oscopy.” (Yes, that actually happened.)
But, oh!, how one misses those moments whenever the film abruptly lurches into the straight dramatic plot about Joshua and Candace. Each time Madea gets revved up to crack some skulls, the viewer teleports into another movie, a movie about lawyers and hookers containing virtually no humor other than Joshua’s wiseass best friend, who delivers a stream of sotto voce warnings whenever Joshua is about to make an inter-gender blunder with Linda. (The parents of RonReaco Lee, who plays Joshua’s friend, were apparently budget rum devotees.) It doesn’t help the situation that the Rudy-Cosby-is-a-hooker story is a low-rent facsimile of a Hallmark Movie of the Week, though Pulliam does credible work chewing through some painfully predictable lines.
Of course, no one here is on the same planet as Viola Davis. Things perk up noticeably whenever her magnetic, energizing presence lifts Perry’s strained, sermonizing script to a more interesting place. Davis has precious little screen time, however, and the viewer is subjected to far too much of Joshua’s one-note hand-wringing and Linda’s cartoonishly villainous machinations. There are some ugly moments in this narrative as well, and Perry inexplicably chooses them to jolt the viewer by cutting from grim material — a hooker getting beat up or Joshua’s tearful confession of The Big Secret — to a tonal opposite featuring Madea slinging the sass.
There is one strong dramatic moment in the Candace-Joshua plot, and I’ve been puzzling over whether it was intentional on Perry’s part. After Candace is kidnapped by a violent, oppressive pimp, she wakes up trapped under his sleeping body and has to escape through a window. She calls Joshua, who is napping on his own bed with Linda draped over him, and Joshua has to make a difficult getaway from his own tyrant in order to pick up Candace. It’s a nice juxtaposition of the respective prisons their lives threaten to become, and if the remainder of the film had an ounce of subtlety, I’d freely credit Perry, who clearly has the basics down.
Eventually — far later in the movie than one would expect — Madea does go to jail, ending up in the slammer with Candace, and Madea picks up a little speed here as the dramatic plot falls away. Madea’s interactions with dykey inmates and nutty serial killers have about as much originality as a Kate Hudson rom-com, but there are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, such as Madea’s casual insistence on referring to the butch cellblock boss as “young man.” Based on the marketing, I really expected this part to be the bulk of the movie, and Perry would have been better off to approach it that way. As it is, Madea doesn’t know what it wants to be, which wouldn’t matter if it were more entertaining. But without enough laughs to go around, one spends the entire time pondering the whiplashing shifts from tired jokes about old people smoking weed to self-righteous preaching about self-reliance, from a prostitute’s heroin withdrawal to vanity scenes for celebrities from daytime television. Ah, well; at least someone finally found an appropriate vehicle for Dr. Phil.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail / Ted Boynton
Film | February 23, 2009 | Comments ()