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Garver reviews latest Tyler Perry flick

March 02, 2009|By BOB GARVER / Special to The Herald-Mail

Tyler Perry is a difficult talent to judge. On one hand, he's very hard-working and his story is inspirational. He spent years struggling in legitimate theater until the late '90s, when he finally struck gold with shows starring his Madea character.

Several successful plays later, he got a movie deal and started a film franchise with 2005's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Almost every year since, he has wrote, directed, produced and starred in a new Madea movie.

Those are all reasons to like him. The reason to dislike him is that he makes movies like "Madea Goes to Jail".

Much like last December's "Marley & Me," "Madea Goes to Jail" tries to balance an annoying storyline with an uninteresting one. Perry clearly feels the uninteresting storyline is a priority, but it isn't enough to get audiences to the theaters. So he creates the annoying storyline, which somehow has a ton of commercial appeal. The film weaves between the two storylines, and the grass is seemingly always greener on the other side.

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The uninteresting storyline is the story of Joshua (Derek Luke) and Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam). Joshua is a hotshot prosecutor engaged to spoiled, hotter-hotshot prosecutor Linda (Ion Overman). One fateful day, old friend Candace shows up in court on a prostitution charge. Joshua is forced to consider how the choices he's made have affected Candace. He's also forced to look at his own life in the same way.

The dirty little secret of "Madea Goes to Jail" is that the movie is mostly about Joshua and Candace. There is absolutely no indication of this in ads. I even had to wait until the end credits to learn that Derek Luke was even in the movie (a shame; I like him and would have rooted for him). Luke and Pulliam play the parts well, but there's very little to the storyline that hasn't been done before. Tyler Perry must have known that if he wanted to tell the story of Joshua and Candace he would need to add more flavor. He would need to add more personality. He would need to add more humor. He added Madea.

Mabel "Madea" Simmons is Perry's most popular character, both on stage and screen. The type of humor surrounding Madea can be summed up in three facts. 1) She mispronounces words. 2) She is far too obnoxious, aggressive, and feisty for her age, which is about 70. 3) She is played by Perry in unconvincing drag. She is apparently very funny, but I just find her annoying. You probably know already if you find her funny or annoying.

In the course of "Madea Goes to Jail", Madea gets involved in a high-speed police chase, beats up three arresting officers, chases people out of her house by opening fire with a machine gun, overturns a convertible with a forklift, gets arrested again, and wins a laundry room brawl with a tough inmate. She's old, so this is considered "quirky."

Much too late in the story, Madea and Candace end up in the same prison. The portions of "Madea Goes to Jail" that actually involve Madea and Jail are actually the film's few bright moments. Madea gets a sweet, psychotic cellmate who takes an instant liking to her. Madea and the prison bully start out as enemies, but eventually develop a mutual respect. A prison volunteer (recent Academy Award nominee Viola Davis) leads a church/therapy session with surprising tenderness and profundity. But then the story goes right back to the dullness of the Joshua storyline.

Tyler Perry thinks that "Madea Goes to Jail" is a fair balance between funny and serious. It's really more of a balance between annoying (Madea) and uninteresting (Joshua and Candace). The compromise is less than satisfying, and it's enough to make one forget that Tyler Perry had to overcome such adversity. Or, like me, not care.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.

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