Plus-Size Matriarch's Stretch in the Slammer


This is Madea, also known as Mabel Simmons, losing her cool (for neither the first time nor the last) in Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail. The only possible response to this question - and I offer it with all respect, not wishing to ruffle Ms. Simmons' formidable feathers - is: If you can't stand the melodrama, then get out of the Tyler Perry movie.


Which is unlikely, since Madea is of course played by Mr. Perry, who is the writer, the director and a producer (he also plays two other roles). His formula is by now well established, in movies like Madea's Family Reunion and The Family That Preys, even if his filmmaking technique remains noticeably unpolished. His stories swerve, sometimes as violently as Madea's 1978 Cadillac, from low comedy to high feeling, from tears to belly laughs. Their messages are sometimes muddled but always emphatic, an expansive collection of homilies preaching compassion, self-reliance, forgiveness and revenge.


But Madea Goes to Jail differs from its immediate predecessors in giving the spotlight back to its title character. In Meet the Browns she had little more than a cameo, but it was on her large frame (which is to say his own, augmented by body padding and a gray wig) that Mr. Perry built his entertainment empire. (There are plays, books, a studio in Atlanta and two sitcoms on TBS.) And her function is to cut through the piety and sentimentality without subverting it. She won't set foot in church, abuses family members who do and refuses to be cured by Dr. Phil, but she is not so much cynical or mocking as righteously, raucously honest.


And the best parts of Madea Goes to Jail - in which the law catches up with this uncompromising, unruly matriarch - are her muttering, motormouthed harangues. The rest of it is a fairly clumsy tale of sin and redemption, involving a young assistant district attorney (Derek Luke) whose impending marriage to a colleague (Ion Overman) is disrupted when he runs across a childhood friend (the former Cosby Show moppet Keshia Knight Pulliam) fallen into a life of prostitution and addiction. Mr. Luke and Viola Davis, who plays a minister, are superb actors (Ms. Pulliam is pretty good, too), and at times their intensity is almost too much for the movie, making the transitions from raw emotion to silly humor all the more jarring.


There is something both satisfying and frustrating about Madea Goes to Jail, which opened Friday without advance press screenings. Mr. Perry dutifully gives his audience what it wants, but you can't help feeling that he might also have more to offer: more coherent narratives, smoother direction, better movies. Still, as long as he has Madea - a force of nature and now something of a pop-culture institution - he might not need any of that.


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