It's time once again to visit that madcap matron Madea, and it's one of Tyler Perry's best entertainment experiences, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
Our review of Madea Goes To Jail, published June 26th, 2009, is also available.
Incarcerated and incorrigible
The police have finally captured Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Tyler Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Nephew Sunny is stuck in a loveless marriage, his trifling wife Vanessa treating him like so much unwashed dirt. It's no surprise then that she's sneaking around behind his back while he's at work. As part of her probation, Madea is required to take in a troubled foster child named Toni, whose lack of discipline and disrespectful attitude puts her instantly at odds with the manic matriarch. After a near-tragedy involving their baby, child protective services, and the local D.A., Wanda arrives to investigate Vanessa and Sunny. Our prosecutor has been Sunny's lifelong friend, yet sadly they have never been much more to each other. Luckily, Madea's next-door neighbor and best friend Ella is around with a good word and a kind heart. It will take a lot more than talk and emotion to straighten out this situation. Sunny and Vanessa are growing apart, Toni is angry at her inmate mother Katie, and Toni's biological father, a perverted pimp named Pete, wants to induct his daughter into the foul "family business." Our feisty female role model must make everything right, even if her actions guarantee that, in the end, Madea Goes to Jail.
For anyone who ever doubted it, Madea Goes to Jail makes it very clear that Tyler Perry is a natural entertainer. People can criticize his decision to take the stagy, talky Gospel plays of the last five decades and reconfigure them for a contemporary urban audience. They can also argue about his devotion to cause vs. his ever-increasing fame and fortune. But when he takes the stage, dressed as everyone's favorite gun-toting, pot-smoking, insult-wielding battleaxe, he is the king of comedy—and she's the matriarch of mirth. Realizing, rightfully so, that his continued success rests firmly on the sagging chest of his demented drag characterization, Madea Goes to Jail centers almost exclusively around the African-American icon and her increasingly dysfunctional diatribes. Still striking out at issues like infidelity, responsibility, faith, and family, this fifth excursion into the world of Mabel "Madea" Simmons and her occasionally befuddled brood is a lot less focused than his other efforts. Instead of being an inflated soap opera where plot points pile up, percolate, and then explode, Perry has created the near-perfect outlet for his sacrosanct stand-up act. Instead of the narrative being the driving force behind the show, Madea and her sensational set-piece speeches make this experience.
Originally, Perry announced that Goes to Jail would be Madea's pseudo-swansong. He pulled together his typically terrific cast, loaded up the trucks, and began a 16-month farewell tour that would take his God-and-glory showcase to as many places and people as he could schedule. Somewhere along the way, the performer must have changed his mind. Instead of marking the DVD release of this play as the "final" word on the Simmons saga, Perry makes it very clear that Madea is just going away "for a while." Naturally, the inference is that success breeds both boredom and brains. Perry is obviously tired of being known as the handsome black man in the frumpy old lady outfit and seeks to establish himself as a realistic human figure before climbing back into the cartoon. When he no longer warrants a seven-picture deal from Hollywood and can't get his own concept of the sitcom approved for public broadcast (Tyler Perry's House of Payne is making the syndicated rounds in various metropolitan locales), Madea's formless frocks will come out of mothballs and back into the churches and concert halls that initially embraced the character. Judging by the response she gets in Goes to Jail, this irascible icon to old-school sentiments may have the shortest retirement in the history of the world.
Frankly, there is more to a Perry production than some dude in a dress, and all the ancillary elements add up to a rousing, revivalist time. Always employing voices of quality and distinction, the musical numbers strewn throughout the show—meant to inspire and comment on the story's religious themes—are superb. In fact, Perry pulls a fast one and throws in a secular bit as well. During a discussion about generational values and love, Madea starts discussing classic soul songs. Before you know it, the cast is breaking out in versions of classic cuts like "Let's Get It On," "A House is Not a Home," and "Clean Up Woman." It's a terrific moment, a real reaching across barriers and boundaries to argue for the past's place in the present. Though Tamala and David Mann are absent as supporting players (she is usually Madea's devote daughter, while he is a sensational stitch as nosy neighbor Mr. Brown), Perry's current company is excellent. Cassi Davis is her own two tons of fun as big, brash neighbor Ella and LaVan Davis is equally hilarious as her jelly-bellied boyfriend Leo. The jail setting is unique, since it gives Madea a chance to interact with individuals both sinister (Crystal Collins' butch broad Chico) and saved (Judy Peterson's operatic Katie).
Naturally, at the center of it all is the tripping and quipping Perry, putting everyone on their guard by changing the script, adlibbing retorts, and playing to the audience as much as possible. In fact, whenever Madea's on stage, the story more or less stops so that Perry can philosophize and joke. In these moments, Goes to Jail jumps off the stage and directly into your soul and/or funny bone. Perry can preach, his voice (even in Madea mode) a wonderful instrument of persuasion and sincerity. He truly believes the comments he's making and he knows he's not alone. The audience responsorial supports his conclusions and pushes him to continue on with the laugh-inspiring life lessons. Indeed, Tyler Perry is a more powerful scholar on the human condition than a dozen Dr. Phils. He doesn't talk down to his fans; he speaks with and for them. He's their voice and they love him for that. There will be those who find his efforts overly simplistic and his writing unoriginal, but they will definitely be missing the much bigger picture. Tyler Perry has a message that he believes needs hearing—and much to his credit, he has found a way to get a lot of people listening.
As stated before on this site in other reviews of Perry's productions, we are dealing with a videotaped play, with a few filmed inserts illustrating the opening police chase. The presentation, however, makes the big mistake of eliminating almost all the audience interaction in the show. The crowd noises are turned down so low and the amplified cast is turned up so loud, that you can barely tell the show is being performed in front of people. Sure there are some huge laughs here, but when we want to feel the crowd's reactions, they are barely audible from the speakers. Also, we see the same post-song fade-outs, eradicating the applauses and appreciation after every number. In all other ways, however, Lions Gate treats Perry's presentation with care and consideration. Even though this is a taped performance, the 1.33:1 full-frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understand camera angles, framing, and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for. Equally important is the translation of the music and, it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soars with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you can't help but feel their musical presence.
As for extras, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes featurette (consisting of Perry and the players mugging and ministering for the camera), a selection of bloopers (humorous, if not flat-out hilarious), and something called "The Magic of Madea/The Making of Madea Goes to Jail." It purports to show how Perry prepares each Madea production, from costuming to road crew. What we see instead is that this once homeless actor is now an entertainment titan, with a growing list of employees, commitments, and headaches to contend with. You can tell that he loves performing on stage, yet one wonders how much the backstage pressures undermine his efforts.
Tyler Perry obviously misread the reaction to the decision to shelve his Madea character, if just for a little while. After 16 months and 350-plus performances, Goes to Jail was one of his most successful shows. The new mantra from the man is, as long as you want to see her, Perry will continue playing her. If Madea Goes to Jail is any indication of the character's staying power, there's a lot more soul left in the old bird. Here's to when she decides to roost once again.
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