Repeat OffenderTyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (PG-13) dominated the box office this past weekend, grossing an estimated $41.1 million. That’s staggering, considering the film was made for less than $20 million and viewed by mainly African American women and a growing audience of 25 and under viewers. It’s also surprising given that the best thing about watching Madea in theaters was the chance to see the preview for Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, an upcoming film Perry has teamed with Oprah Winfrey to promote.

It’s not that Madea is bad. Perry certainly sticks to his winning formula, delivering all of the outlandish slapstick humor and palatable self-help based Christian messaging we’ve come to expect of his work. The trouble is that the film suffers from the over ambition of its creator.

Yet again Perry takes on the duties of writing, producing, directing, and starring in Madea, leaving him with little perspective to see the crater-sized gaps in the plot. In short, he’s doing too much, and his splayed attention leaves the film lacking in focus. One gets the sense that had another director been brought on board, if only to guide the film from the vantage of a panoramic view, Madea could have deserved the success it has received. After all, the acting is strong (both Derek Luke and Oscar-nominated Viola Davis deliver remarkable performances) and the production quality is much improved from past Madea films. The problem with this latest release lies in the disjointed structure of the plot.

On the one hand, the movie is about Mabel Simmons, better known as Madea, who has caused one public disturbance too many after a run-in with a police officer’s wife. This time no amount of smooth-talking or legal missteps will free her, especially once she appears before the no-nonsense Judge Mathis. Even a hilarious anger management counseling session with tough-talking Dr. Phil can’t absolve her of serving five-to-ten years behind bars.

The trouble is, it takes over an hour to actually get Madea thrown in jail. Her incarceration is delayed while another plot develops back at the ranch. Joshua Hardaway (Luke) and his fiancée Linda (Ion Overman), both rising stars in the city prosecutor’s office, begin to experience relationship trouble when Joshua’s childhood friend turned drugged-out prostitute Candace re-enters his life. Compelled to help his friend (The Cosby Show‘s Keshia Knight Pulliam), mostly out of guilt for past sins committed one fateful night in college, Joshua sets out on a path to save Candace from the streets. If this story of redemption and healing sounds like a totally different movie, it’s because it should have been. The heavy-handed drama feels jarring amidst the no-holds barred comedy of Madea’s storyline.

Once you add in superfluous cameos from the ladies of The View, Steve Harvey, and Michael Baisden, Perry’s greenness to filmmaking starts to show. It’s like watching a child perform at a family gathering. His parade of stars and multiple roles in the film scream, “Look what I can do!”

Still, in spite of his grandstanding, Perry should be commended for his generous use of new talent. Plus, a big shout-out must go to spoken-word artist Tamika “Georgia Me” Harper, last seen on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry, who makes her major motion picture debut.

It’s too bad Perry’s films aren’t better. He’s a fabulous playwright, and given his latest success and growing power to deliver large numbers at the box office, it’s a shame he has not turned his attention to producing more films about the black community, sans the angry big mama caricature of Madea. Now that he has his own studio, it would be refreshing to see him employ other filmmakers to share his duties, allowing him to pour his energy into building his growing empire. Hanging onto his one-stop Perry shop M.O. is playing small. Someone needs to tell him, “Tyler, you’ve made it. Now live up to what you have already attained.”

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“The Tyler Perry Formula”

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