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MOVIE REVIEW

Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail

Once again, Perry has his moments in 'Madea Goes to Jail'

Tyler Perry wrote, directed, and stars in ''Madea Goes to Jail.'' Tyler Perry wrote, directed, and stars in ''Madea Goes to Jail.'' (Quantrell Colbert)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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Another week, another Tyler Perry movie. This time, Madea goes to jail.

It takes almost an hour and a half to get her there (Perry's movies have daytime-television pacing), and, predictably enough, she does not go quietly. The women's prison dramedy I wanted never really happens. But in between court dates, Perry - who wrote, produced, and directed the movie, and bedrags himself as the title's obscene outlaw granny - finds a lot of time for his standard adventures in self-help tedium.

Derek Luke plays Josh Hardaway, a lawyer in the Atlanta D.A.'s office, who risks his engagement to a pampered but frequently victorious fellow attorney (Ion Overman) to save Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam, a million years from "The Cosby Show"), an old friend, from a life of addiction and prostitution.

Josh could simply explain to his fiancee why this strange, unbathed young woman, who, amazingly, seems like a Lifetime-movie Janet Jackson, keeps turning up outside (and inside) his apartment. But Perry doesn't write that way. Why clear up in one scene what can be dragged across 10? As I said, Perry writes the way soap fans prefer. So obvious solutions are complicated by juicy revelations and whatever is going on with Madea, who, when she appears in a Perry movie, interrupts the proceedings like a commercial break.

Perry has made room for Madea's daughter and her churchy husband, the Browns (David and Tamala Mann). He's also cleared a path for himself to resume duty as Madea's uncouth brother Joe and Joe's strapping lawyer son. If you have a sense of how reserved and tentative Perry appears to be in a suit or jeans and a T-shirt, watching him go to town in Madea's housecoats, frocks, knee-high socks, and silver wig can be entertaining. Perry seems so free from himself. And yet, a little Madea goes a long way. I've come to love her - just in five-minute increments.

When it comes to these movies, it's not a question of which of Perry's seven films is best, but which has the best moments. Regrettably, "Madea Goes to Jail" doesn't have Kathy Bates or Alfre Woodard, who were so good in "The Family That Preys; or Tasha Smith, who was the best thing in "Why Did I Get Married?" and now that I think of it, "Daddy's Little Girls," too. There is, however, Viola Davis, who might win an Oscar tomorrow for her one scene in "Doubt." Her part here - a minister combing the street for crack-whores to rescue - is about three times as large.

And her character epitomizes Perry's ongoing commitment to dramatizing as many rungs on the ladder of the black experience as he can. His aim never produces a completely satisfying or consistently competent-looking movie (his heart's in the right place, if not his camerawork). For one thing, the symbiosis is weird. His upper-middle-class characters tend to be abusive, venal, or shallow. His poor characters tend to need the patience and compassion of the better-off. Madea, meanwhile, navigates the vast middle-class gulf between the two extremes - everybody walks through her house.

You wonder how good Perry might be if he dropped these boilerplate movie-of-the-week scenarios and let Madea's outrage (or Bates's smolder) make dramatic contact with news of home foreclosures, the economic downturn, or the current occupants of the White House. I'm just saying: It'd be nice to see Madea go to jail for a reason.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

TYLER PERRY'S MADEA GOES TO JAIL Written and directed by: Tyler Perry

Starring: Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam, and Viola Davis

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 114 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, drug content, some violence and sexual situations)

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