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'Jail' doesn't break from Perry formula

Is that Oscar nominee Viola Davis playing a straight-talking prison preacher in Tyler Perry's latest, "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail"?

And Dr. Phil? And Tom Joyner? Steve Harvey? Judge Mathis? The cast of "The View"?

Perry, the Atlanta-based comedy factory, pulls out all the stops to stimulate his box office (it's been sliding in recent years) with this "Madea" farce. His growing savvy as a movie-maker runs smack dab into his need to pander in this, his broadest farce to star his cross-dressed alter ego, the auntie the world knows as Madea.

The formula hasn't changed, not much. There's still a broad, lowdown pot-smoking, law-breaking, temper-losing romp with Madea as the "po po" (police) finally catch up to her and toss her in the DeKalb County lock-up. And there's the uplifting life-lesson story, this one about an assistant district attorney (Derek Luke) out to save a street-walker he once knew because he feels responsible for the life she now leads.

A casting note -- the hooker is played by Keshia Pulliam Knight. Yes, "The Cosby Show" was a long time ago. And no, she's not a very convincing prostitute.

"Goes to Jail" is Perry's latest play-to-video-to-big-screen adaptation. But that doesn't make him lazy. He's "repurposing content." He's always been a better self-promoter than dramatist or filmmaker. As lovely as the actors always are in his movies, this one gets pretty sloppy. The shifts in tone from farce to violent melodrama with a hint of self-help are as jarring as ever.

Unlike every other film in the Perry repertoire, "Goes to Jail" plays the race card. From nasty white drivers and lecherous white employers to white prison guards, white bullies in prison and white pimps, this is the first Madea film that didn't feel all-embracing.

Assistant DA Joshua has fiancee troubles because of his attempts to help the hooker. Madea struggles with anger management sessions (Dr. Phil in a funny scene). A prison throw-down is coming.

And in the end, all the stories come together and we've all learned so so much -- "Where I come from, if somebody needs help, you try to help them out."

The movie's huge laughs suggest that as overexposed as Perry is, with TV shows and two films a year coming out of his studio, "Madea Goes to Jail" will be a monster hit. Maybe that means he can let the lady (younger looking with every film) retire a winner. He's not growing; the movies aren't improving; and nobody wants to see Perry become Dame Edna in his dotage.

***

"Madea Goes to Jail"

Starring Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Pulliam Knight and Viola Davis.

97 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug content, some violence and sexual situations.

Opened Friday in area theaters.