On the weekend of October 12, 2007, the highest-grossing movie in America was Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? You wouldn’t have known it in Burlington, where that flick never opened.
Made on small budgets, released on slow weekends, Perry’s movies do so well that the Atlanta-based writer/director/producer/actor/studio head deserves to be called a phenomenon. His core audience has always been middle-aged African-American women, which may explain why his movies seldom land in our theaters. But for evidence that Perry has crossover appeal, one need look no further than a recent showing at the Majestic of his latest, Madea Goes to Jail — which won the national box office handily last weekend. While the audience was more diverse than the average group of Vermont moviegoers, white folks were still a majority. And everybody seemed to be immensely enjoying the antics of Madea, a straight-talkin’, gun-totin’ grandma character that Perry himself plays in a fat suit and drag.
True, if anything crosses all borders, it’s the appeal of fat-suit-based comedy. Vermonters turned out in droves for Big Momma’s House and Norbit. But Perry’s films are different from those standard laugh fests and, for someone not used to them, weirder. They disregard the genre boundaries that make most Hollywood movies easy to market. When you buy a ticket for Friday the 13th, you know you aren’t going to get Nights in Rodanthe. When you go see an Adam Sandler flick, you know the comedy may end with a “serious message,” but it will never become an outright tearjerker. Madea Goes to Jail, by contrast, alternates between broad comedy and a melodrama so weepy and traditional it might as well star Lillian Gish. Watching it is like switching channels between a Lifetime movie and a sketch comedy routine — or like spending a night in the old-time popular playhouse, where vaudeville acts shared space with tragedies. (Not surprisingly, regional theater is where Perry started and still thrives.)
Till the last half hour, all that ties these two plots together is a courtroom. In the comic portion of our entertainment, lawless matriarch Mable “Madea” Simmons is hauled before the judge after a road-rage incident, then struggles (not very hard) with her anger issues. In the serious portion, handsome assistant D.A. Josh Hardaway (Derek Luke) gets in trouble with his high-powered lawyer fiancée when he tries to extend a helping hand to a surly prostitute (Keshia Knight Pulliam), whom he knows from his youth.
Oscar nominee Viola Davis appears as a grim-faced preacher who tries to reach out to the streetwalkers, and her no-nonsense gospel gives the film’s dramatic sections a bit of gravitas. Pulliam, best known as little Rudy from “The Cosby Show,” uses her big doe eyes nicely in the Fallen Woman role. Still, this is an ultra-simple morality tale with a message that’s obvious from the beginning: No matter how high you rise, never forget where you came from.
If the whole thing feels stagy, that’s because Perry the director encourages his actors to play to the back row, and tends to set up his shots as if he were still working under a proscenium. None of that clunkiness really matters, though, when what’s being staged is Madea. It doesn’t matter that her exuberant selfishness contradicts the film’s message, either. Or that Perry’s comic dialogue seldom rises above the level of “If you get me, I’m a gonna get you.” Madea still gets the laughs, particularly in a scene where she butts heads with her celebrity anger-management counselor, TV’s Dr. Phil McGraw. Maybe that’s because her railroading personality feels drawn from life, and because, as an actor, Perry does know when to dial it back and deadpan a line. (When Dr. Phil asks Madea if she’s crazy, she replies demurely, “Maybe a little bit,” pursing her lips while madness lurks in her eyes.)
For all the Christly ethics embedded in this movie, it comes down to several set pieces in which a growling underdog takes down the world’s fat cats. Elderly ladies with paunches and bad attitudes have their own superhero — and it’s about time.