Madea Goes to Jail

Heaven help me, this Madea character is starting to grow on me. In “Madea Goes to Jail,” Tyler Perry’s latest adaptation of one of his innumerable stage plays, his giant, pistol-packing alter ego finally runs afoul of the law one too many times and finds herself in the big house (not “Big Momma’s House,” the big house). As a character, Madea felt randomly assembled in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion,” but now Perry has grown her into a larger-than-life force of nature that is genuinely funny.

“Madea Goes to Jail” would be a lot better, in fact, if it were actually about Madea going to jail, or about Madea at all. But she’s merely a supporting character in the film, which is really about a young lawyer and his shrewish fiancee dealing with elements from his past, with light Christian themes baked into the crust. In other words, it’s more or less the same movie Perry has been making all along, with one-dimensional villains, catty women, and cringe-inducing melodrama. The addition of Rudy Huxtable as a crack whore certainly raises my level of interest, though.

That’d be Keshia Knight Pulliam, who is 29 years old now, if you can believe that. She plays Candy, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks — someone actually uses that figure of speech — who’s now hooked on the junk and turning tricks on the streets of Atlanta. Our dashing hero lawyer, Josh (Derek Luke), a prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, grew up in the same ghetto and is astonished to be reunited with her after she’s arrested. But his purely platonic desire to help her is hampered by his wealthy fiancee, Linda (Ion Overman), who sees no reason to reach out to “those people” when it’s Candy’s own damn fault she’s so messed up.

Linda is an unbelievable snob, and I use the word “unbelievable” in its literal sense: As a character, and like most of Perry’s villains, she is not even remotely plausible. She’s too single-mindedly eeeeevil, an amalgam of selfishness, vanity, and condescension. She’s a cartoon character. I half expected her to grow a mustache, just so she could twirl it while tying Candy to some railroad tracks.

She suits Perry’s purposes, though, which is to give the audience a monster to root against without having to think very hard or ponder a lot of angles. This tendency toward oversimplification has always been my problem with Perry, and you’d think the audience would be insulted by it after a while. Maybe if someone would do a BETTER job of making films targeted at a black, female Christian audience, Perry’s half-baked didacticism would suffer in comparison.

In the meantime, this is the best there is, so it’s nice that Perry is improving, albeit in small increments, as a director, writer, and performer. “Madea Goes to Jail” finds him at his loosest and most confident yet. Madea’s ancient brother, Joe (also played by Perry), is an avid marijuana user, which earns big laughs in some early scenes, and Madea herself is unabashedly disdainful of religion and its practitioners. Somehow Perry gets away with these very transgressive jokes, which might offend his target audience if they weren’t already quite happily in the palm of his hand. They know he’s just playin’ around (or at least they assume he is), so the bluntness is OK.

Unfortunately, while bluntness can be effective in comedy, it tends to be counterproductive in drama. That’s why all the business with Josh, Linda, and Candy misses the mark. There’s not a real person anywhere in the film — fine if you want us to laugh at them, not so much if you want us to cry.

B- (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some mild violence and mature themes.)