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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 01:50 pm

Madea: A Jekyll and Hyde affair for Tyler Perry fans

Tyler Perry as Madea and Sofia Vergara as T.T. in Madea Goes to Jail.

Filmmaker Tyler Perry has a tried and true formula he uses in all of his films and it’s been successful enough for him to build his own movie mini-empire. With soundstages in Atlanta and the full cooperation of the city behind him, the writer/director has cultivated a sizable and faithful audience that flock to his films, which consist of broad comedy and less than subtle sermonizing. Perry knows how to leave his viewers with a smile on their face and faith in their souls and they attend his films, especially on opening weekend, with a fervor similar to a Sunday morning congregation headed to a gospel sermon.

His latest, Madea Goes to Jail, doubled box office expectations with a weekend take of $41 million, which averaged out to more than $20,000 per screen. With a budget of just under $20 million, this is a hit any way you cut it.

Perry’s films are predictable and this comfort-food quality is a large part of their appeal. This time out, the ever-offensive Madea (Perry in drag), who never met a confrontation she couldn’t escalate in her favor, has numerous brushes with the law until finally (spoiler ahead!) she ends up in jail. Headed to the same destination is Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam), a prostitute with a self-destructive streak. Candace, despite getting help from Joshua (Derek Luke), a former childhood friend, is intent on ruining her life.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how these two stories will converge, despite their radically different tones. While the Madea scenes are played for broad laughs, the sections featuring Candace are so weighty I felt my center of gravity shift as I watched them. Perry’s take on the Golden Rule is as obvious as his drag routine, but it almost works. That’s thanks to the fine work of Luke and Viola Davis, recent Oscar nominees. Their skill is proof positive that solid acting can elevate so-so material. Luke has one of the finest moments of the young movie year with a scene that sees Joshua unburden himself about a past sin. There’s no hokum here, just a moment of genuine emotion that, for a brief moment, achieves the sort of sincerity Perry strives for.

Unfortunately, moments such as these are too few and far between to make Madea Goes to Jail a good movie. Perry’s intent with his films is a noble one and he’s to be commended for sticking to his guns and finding success on his own terms. He’s also becoming a decent filmmaker. In the end, however, it hardly matters whether he knows how to frame a shot or what I or any critic says about his work. As long as he continues to give his audience what they want, that’s all that matters.

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