At this point, complaining about the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, sermonizing, and ridiculous, unselfconscious excess of Tyler Perry movies is like bitching that blues songs are depressing, or that Satanic death metal doesn’t promote good Christian values. Perry’s contempt for subtlety and cohesiveness is problematic, but it’s also a defining element of his oeuvre. He clearly sees no reason to mess with a moneymaking formula just because his crass crowd-pleasers won’t be winning Oscars any time soon.
Perry’s Madea-centered movies are particularly schizophrenic; in Madea Goes To Jail,Perry’s playing-to-the-cheap-seats drag shenanigans hijack a morose street melodrama every 15 minutes and haul it into places even Flavor Flav fears to tread. Watching Jail is like flipping channels between the grim, miserablist Sundance favorite Push and Big Momma’s House.Perry’s latest casts Derek Luke as a saintly lawyer who reconnects with a childhood friend, played by former Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam, when she’s arrested for prostitution. Luke’s coworker/evil fiancée (Ion Overman) takes great offense at her husband’s Christ-like attempts to save Pulliam, but she’s nursing her own dark secrets. Meanwhile, Perry’s sasstastic titular big mama runs into legal problems when she destroys the car of one of the film’s cartoonish white folks in a fit of road rage.
Not unlike Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Madea offers a classic bait-and-switch. Just as Jason barely spent enough time in Manhattan to pick up a New York snow globe, it takes 90 damned minutes for Perry’s towering mischief-maker to get sent to jail. Shrill, overwrought, but seldom boring, Madea turns shamelessness into an asset. That vulgar energy takes it far, even though its take on the judicial system makes Night Court look like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, and its heavy dramatic scenes, particularly Luke’s climactic monologue about the endlessly telegraphed formative trauma he shares with Knight Pulliam, garners bigger laughs than any of Perry’s shenanigans. Madea’s physical comedy is loud enough to wake the dead, but its drama is just as excessive. In a neat bit of economy, Perry stages a wedding that doubles as a breakup, and triples as the villain’s crowd-pleasing comeuppance. Now that is some serious multitasking.