Tyler Perry’s roles as both populist entertainer and social preacher come into disconcerting conflict in the latest of his popular stage-to-screen adaptations, an admittedly relative criticism, but one too glaring to these eyes to forgive or ignore. In Madea Goes to Jail, the titular matriarch (otherwise known as Mabel Simmons, played as always by Perry himself) finally runs out of luck when a unique bit of road rage—coupled with the countless acts of theft, fraud, attempted murder, and random violent incidents committed over the course of the woman’s life—sees her finally committed to the slammer for a necessary timeout. Enthused fan blindness notwithstanding (the kind that saw Roger Ebert’s tsunami of racism-purporting hate mail over his levelheaded take on Perry’s feature debut, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), anyone capable of imagining this woman existing in the same plane of reality as the rest of us would unlikely doubt her very necessary confinement behind several sets of bars, brick walls, and barbed wire.
As something of an overtly pronounced gadfly, Madea’s complete rejection of prevailing social decencies is more than sporadically amusing, but her context in Perry’s dramas is one of misguidedly sacrificed aesthetic and moral consistency in the name of populist satiation, at least insofar as her presence in these works amounts to that of a walking double standard. By utilizing the character’s happy-go-lucky destruction as comic relief to a paralleling story soaked in bitter lessons of reality, Perry denies the audience consistency of insight. As Madea skirts authorities and denies anger management sessions with Dr. Phil, young Assistant D.A. Joshua Hardaway (Derek Luke) discovers a close childhood friend working the streets and cannot help but reach out, much to the bitterness of his fiercely competitive, upper-class native fiancée Linda Holmes (Ion Overman), who argues that anyone leading a life of prostitution can only be doing such as a result of their own past misdoings.
In something of a continuation of The Family That Preys‘s commentary on life in a capitalist society, Madea Goes to Jail uses its characters to scrutinize the validity of so-called meritocracy. While the film certainly has timeliness on its side, its overall class consciousness remains about as substantial as the lip service of Atonement, though Perry’s film benefits from an amiable sense of earnest humility. Nevertheless, as one half of his film condemns the selfish and greedy, another gives a (literal) free pass to one utterly incapable of turning the other cheek, with nary an effort to reconcile these clashing caricatures and the frightening damage the latter wreaks on an innocently bystanding society at large.