Writer-director Tyler Perry sticks closely to the formula that has served him well so far in “Madea Goes to Jail,” the latest bigscreen dramedy based on one of his popular stage plays. But the law of diminishing returns catches up with the mega-successful multihyphenate in this wildly uneven effort, which is notably more strained and slapdash than such earlier efforts as “Madea’s Family Reunion” and “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns.” Latest opus likely will prove a critic-proof crowdpleaser, drawing fans to megaplexes and vidstores. But it almost certainly won’t expand the crossover audience for the franchise.
Once again, Perry has concocted an ungainly mix of broad comedy, comically violent slapstick, sudsy sentimentality and aggressive spiritual uplift, racing through vertiginous mood swings and tonal shifts as characters run the gamut from smoking joints to praising Jesus, cracking heads to breaking hearts.
Also once again, Perry casts himself — in outrageous femme drag — as the blustery behemoth known as Madea, the trash-talking, quick-tempered matriarch of an extended Atlanta family. Even during her funniest moments in the preceding pics, the character has come off as almost impossibly grating. Maybe it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but Madea crosses over to full-scale obnoxiousness too often here. On at least two occasions, her self-indulgent tantrums suggest the screechings of a sociopath.
For the first 70 minutes or so, “Jail” alternates between scenes of sitcom-style excess — Madea repeatedly tests the patience of loved ones, total strangers and increasingly annoyed law enforcement officials — and episodes that propel a melodramatic plot involving Joshua Hardaway (Derek Luke), an assistant district attorney who offers aid and comfort to a drug-abusing hooker and fallen-from-grace childhood friend named Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam, all grown up since “The Cosby Show”).
Joshua’s not entirely selfless reformation project calls for close contact with Candace, which understandably upsets Linda (Ion Overman), his snooty fiancee. Unfortunately, Linda also is an assistant D.A., and a far less ethical one at that. It takes little effort on Linda’s part for Candace to wind up behind bars, right around the time Madea, arrested for her overreaction to a parking dispute, is sent to the same prison by the no-nonsense star of TV’s “Judge Mathis” (one of several real-life media and political notables making cameos).
“Madea Goes to Jail” only rarely follows through on promising setups with big laughs. The comic highlight is a sequence in which Madea proves capable of driving even the professionally compassionate Dr. Phil to the point of barely contained fury. (Very funny outtakes from this encounter are shown during the closing credits.)
At other points, however, Perry the writer-director appears to proceed on the assumption that Perry the actor need only scream, strut or swear to get big yocks. That assumption, alas, is not consistently justified.
Dramatic scenes seem even more overwrought in the context of so much over-the-top funny business. Indeed, Luke’s tearful breakdown during a scene opposite Viola Davis (well cast as a prison minister and urban outreach volunteer) elicited guffaws at a well-attended preview screening.
Perfs range from sincere to excessively cartoonish, which is par for the course in this franchise. Special effects are impressive during scenes in which Perry appears opposite himself as Madea’s pot-toking brother and/or straight-arrow lawyer nephew. Otherwise, tech values are unremarkable.
Overall, one is left with the impression that Perry simply is giving his target audience what he feels reasonably safe in assuming they want, based on his B.O. track record. It will up to his fanbase to decide whether that’s too much, or not enough, or exactly what they do indeed desire.