It's easy to dismiss Tyler Perry's movies as cheap and preachy, but they need to be viewed in a full audience to be appreciated. Seeing Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail revives a sense of film-going as a social experience. He deals with relationships in spiritual and broadly comedic terms, and audiences are invited to respond by laughing and gasping, and cheering on Perry's in-drag performance as gun-toting grandma Madea.
The secret is that Perry (whose films are based on his stage plays) tells personally observed stories about American community. And his films are steadily improving. Madea Goes to Jail still looks shoddy and is full of cheap tactics, but it succeeds by being Perry's most emotional film. The jokes are more grand and better timed, and the sad moments don't shy away from making hardship felt.
For a while, the serious side is strong enough that Madea is unnecessary comic relief. Lawyer Joshua Hardaway (Derek Luke) is having trouble with his fiance Linda (Ion Overman), who is distraught by his charity for childhood friend Candace (The Cosby Show's Keshia Knight Pulliam), now living as a drug-addicted prostitute. There's open-mindedness in Joshua and Candace's relationship. Perry shows concern for Candace, rather than chastising her. It's brave how the film takes her as a worthy candidate for Joshua's heart. Fake solutions often abound: promoting Christianity as a cure for prostitution is irresponsible.
Madea takes over in the film's last half, which could be titled Madea Goes Crazy. In exploring the old woman's rage issues, Perry lays down a particular code of ethics. The antagonistic white supporting characters are just exaggerated effect: The most memorable scene has Madea destroying the car of a woman who stole her parking spot at a grocery store. If anything, Perry has made a movie about the line separating personal law from the real law. In its crude manner, it's about social understanding and individual acceptance.
For showtimes, see Movie Times, page 18. I fought the law, and firstname.lastname@example.org won.