Madea—writer/director/actor/producer Tyler Perry's buxom, boisterous alter ego—has been in trouble with the law since she was in pigtails. Most recently, she beat up police officers following an O.J. Simpson-style car chase. Prison awaits.
But what's this? The police didn't read Madea her Miranda rights? "We were fighting for our lives, your honor!" one officer protests. And so Madea goes free on a technicality.
But the judge issues a warning: Next time, jail.
Well, nobody tells Madea what to do. Within five minutes, she's breaking up parties with automatic weapons, ramming motorists with her daughter's SUV and nearly luring Dr. Phil into a throwdown during a court-ordered anger-management session.
The kicker comes when an obnoxious woman in a red convertible steals Madea's parking space. So she commandeers a forklift, picks up the snazzy car and dumps it on the asphalt. Madea manages to make it home before a SWAT unit converges on her house to take her away.
All of those shenanigans, though, are incidental to the movie's real story: a morality play about a sympathetic prostitute named Candy, a kindhearted assistant DA who wants to help her, his conniving fiancée who's more interested in career advancement than basic human decency and a tough-love minister dedicated to helping prostitutes get off the streets and get right with God.
Perry's movies are sometimes brash and crass, but they always pack a moral or three. And in Madea Goes to Jail, the messages are clear: Take responsibility. Don't blame others for your misfortunes. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Or, as Madea says, "Everybody got a life. What you do with that life is up to you."
Josh, the assistant DA, is the film's most admirable character. Candy is just one of countless of people he's called upon to prosecute. But when he realizes he knows her, he turns the case over to his fiancée, Linda (who's also an assistant DA), and begins to take a more personal interest in Candy's fate.
Josh buys Candy lunch, introduces her to the street preacher and provides her shelter when she needs it most. Even when Linda begins to pressure Josh to surrender Candy to the consequences of her choices, he continues to demonstrate compassion and goes out of his way to help Candy untangle her life from the circumstances that have ensnared her.
Ellen, the preacher, ministers to prostitutes on the street and women in prison. While we might question some of her methods—she hands out condoms and clean needles to prostitutes, for instance—no one can question her heart or sincerity. "That woman right there?" one prostitute tells Candy, "She's real."
In the world of secular film, arguably no one talks about faith as openly, honestly or often as Tyler Perry. "The thing about it is, I don't know why it's never talked about in film," Perry told beliefnet.com. "There are people [making films] who believe, but I think they're people who believe in the closet. They believe very quietly. There's this huge separation of church and state. I'm not afraid to mix the two. I'm not afraid to have a character say, 'I am a Christian,' or, 'I believe in God,' because I think they represent real people on this earth."
So, as is always the case in Perry's Madea films, the abrasive grandma's shallow, self-serving "faith" contrasts with the deep and genuine beliefs exhibited by several other characters, particularly Ellen.
Candy initially wants no part of Ellen's faith. "I ain't got time for no Jesus," she tells the minister. When they meet again, Candy mocks Ellen's Bible-thumping ways. Ellen retorts that she's not even carrying a Bible. Another prostitute says that Ellen doesn't need one because "you know every word in it." Candy eventually allows Ellen to arrange a job interview for her. But when the supposedly Christian employer offers Candy the job if she'll sleep with him, she hits him in the groin and storms out of the interview, making disparaging comments about hypocritical Christians as she goes.
Ellen's spiritual messages finally take root after Candy gets sent to prison, where she starts attending Ellen's worship meetings. (Madea's there, too, touting her own, decidedly different "gospel.") Ellen touches on her testimony, how she too was once a prostitute and a drug addict. And she preaches the value of forgiveness. "You have to forgive, so we may be forgiven," we're told. Later, Candy asks Josh if he believes Jesus can help people. Josh does. And Candy affirms that she does too. She then forgives Josh for an incident from their shared past.
Elsewhere, Madea's interactions with her daughter, Cora, and her son-in-law, Brown, often involve both sincere and sarcastic references to Christianity. Cora and Brown ardently apply their beliefs to just about everything in life, while Madea continually questions those convictions. Cora, for example, points out her "WWJD" bracelet, saying, "It's a reminder for how to treat people." After a confrontation with a rude driver, Madea quips, "Did you show him your bracelet, Cora?"
In moments of crisis, though, Madea suddenly (if not sincerely) changes her tune. Worried about the prospect of prison, she says, "If the Lord gets me out of this, I'm going to church." But when she temporarily dodges hard time, she reneges, insisting that just driving by church is good enough. During the credits, we see outtakes of Madea arguing with Dr. Phil, mangling Scripture references about taking an eye for an eye.
The soundtrack features some spiritual songs, including a remake of "Amazing Grace."
We see Candy and several other scantily clad prostitutes on the street. When Candy is kidnapped by the would-be pimp, the camera shows her lying on a bed, apparently naked, with the shirtless man sleeping on top of her. She later flees his apartment, wearing only a towel.
Candy describes several degrading events that contributed to her becoming a prostitute. It's hinted that her stepfather sexually abused her. She also had a boyfriend after college who asked her to have sex with other men. [Spoiler Warning] And she was gang-raped by Josh's football pals in college—a crime he knew about but never reported to the authorities. That event triggered a downward spiral in Candy's life and turned Josh into a guilt-driven workaholic.
We hear that Madea once worked as a stripper, and we see an old nude photo of her, with R-rated areas covered by feather fans. A business card for a strip club includes suggestive line drawings. Crude slang is used for breasts. An elderly partygoer makes a crude pass at Cora. Madea makes a snide reference to virginity. Candy attracts the interest of a fellow prisoner, Big Sal, whom Madea addresses as "young man" and whom the film not-so-subtly suggests is a domineering lesbian.
Josh and his fiancée, Linda, are shown sleeping together clothed. After a fight, they suggestively discuss making up at his apartment. Several couples kiss. When Josh posts bail for Candy, she assumes he wants sexual favors in return. (He doesn't).
Most of Madea's violence is of the slapstick variety. Madea repeatedly batters, wrestles and squashes police officers and bailiffs. A melee with Big Sal involves Madea shoving the woman's head beneath a steam press. Candy also gets into the act, half-heartedly elbowing Big Sal after Madea tosses her foe into a laundry bin. Driving, Madea purposely rear-ends someone and, as mentioned, dumps the convertible in the Kmart parking lot. She talks about carrying a Glock pistol and fires an automatic rifle to clear her house of partygoers. Madea's cellmate claims to have killed 18 men.
Much more realistic (and serious) violence occurs when a prostitute gets slapped to the ground by her pimp. After that, the man pins Candy to a fence and chokes her until she passes out. It's implied that he rapes her while she's unconscious. And when she comes to, he tells her that she's his slave and that she has to pay for her freedom.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear "h---" at least 50 times. Other vulgarities ("d--n," "a--," "b--tard") are used occasionally as well. God's names ("God," "Lord") are taken in vain a handful of times. We also glimpse one crude hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Madea's brother, Joe, is tethered to an oxygen tank, but that doesn't keep him from rolling and toking a marijuana joint. At one point, he even attaches a bong to his oxygen hose. Joe describes marijuana and Viagra as gifts from God and wears eyeglasses with decorative beer mugs on them.
Candy's drug problem is portrayed in a more visceral, realistic way. Several times she gets the shakes as she goes through withdrawal, presumably from heroin. (She and another prostitute accept clean needles from Ellen, who's asked them whether they're hooked on cocaine or heroin). Other characters smoke cigarettes, and a party at Madea's house boasts a keg.
Other Negative Elements
In order to get a higher conviction rate, Linda pads her cases with prior convictions—a technique she uses to send Candy to prison for 17 years. One of Josh's friends cheated on his bar examination, and Linda uses that information to keep him from telling Josh about her unethical behavior after it's uncovered.
Madea drives, even though her license has been suspended for 38 years. She mentions flatulence. Racist remarks pop up as well.
Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. Madea tells us we only have two cheeks. After those get slapped, it's time to start whuppin'. That philosophy goes a long way toward explaining Madea Goes to Jail.
On one hand, we have Tyler Perry's messages: Faith matters. Forgiveness is important. Take responsibility for your own life.
On the other, we have Perry's mode: Madea.
OK, Madea's a comical character. I get it. We're not supposed to take her seriously. Her outlandish exploits are intended as vaudeville interlude, over-the-top slapstick designed to give viewers a break from the otherwise serious story Perry wants to tell.
And yet, in a way, we're asked to embrace Madea. Even to admire her. She represents, on some level, what we all wish we could do to the driver who takes our parking spot. She's the human id unleashed, full of anger and vengeance and snappy one-liners.
Madea does reinforce the idea that we should take responsibility for our choices. Yet at the end of the film, despite a rap sheet as long as the Nile, she's released from prison. Why? Because Linda's unethical prosecution lets her off the hook. After all, a 5- to 10-year prison sentence would mean an end to Madea's movie franchise, right? Of course she gets out.
So Madea exits the big house unbowed, unrepentant and as obnoxious as ever. I've mentioned that she sometimes serves as built-in spiritual foil. But more often, just as in the other Madea movies, Perry's would-be protagonist becomes a walking rebuff of the serious and significant messages the director apparently hopes to deliver.