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‘Madea Goes to Jail’? Throw away the key

Tyler Perry’s latest provides a few laughs amidst lots of hokey melodrama.

McDonald’s generally receives condemnation for making billions of dollars each year selling unhealthy food to a ravenous populace that can’t get enough. Yet somehow, Tyler Perry is praised for “knowing what his audience wants” when he pops up two or three times each year to sling his casserole of heavy-handed melodrama, come-to-Jesus sermonizing and lower-than-low physical comedy served on a bed of indifferent cinematography and acting.

While last year’s “Meet the Browns” suggested that the successful filmmaker might marry his audience-pleasing savvy with some decent writing and directing, it’s back to the lowest common denominator with “Madea Goes to Jail,” another Tyler Perry embarrassment that will, no doubt, bring him riches.

Audiences expecting a comedic extravaganza built around the smack-talking, larger-than-life Madea (played by Perry in drag) will be disappointed to discover that her incarceration is very much a secondary plot here. The real story deals with Josh (Derek Luke), an assistant D.A. who worked his way up from the ghetto and who is engaged to marry fellow lawyer Linda (Ion Overman). Those who know Perry’s oeuvre will spot Linda as the villain in no time — she comes from a rich family and she’s a snob, which in Perry-land equals evil, evil, evil.

One of Josh’s cases involves Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), an old friend who is now walking the streets. (Or “these streets,” as the movie puts it often enough to merit a drinking game.) Josh’s desire to help out Candy bothers the unfeeling Linda, but of course Josh can’t reveal the real reason that he feels guilty about Candy’s current situation, since that would involve revealing the Big Secret that the movie sits on until the third act.

Meanwhile, Madea walks from her arrest for driving with a suspended license and beating down her arresting officers because those same policemen didn’t read her the Miranda warning. After a fruitless visit with an anger management counselor (which leads to an irritating cameo by daytime TV’s Dr. Phil), Madea forklifts the car driven by a woman who stole her parking space, leading her back to court with an unamused judge (which leads to an irritating cameo by daytime TV’s Judge Mathis) and a trip to the big house.

Of course, this being a Tyler Perry movie, the Lord is summoned, quit-being-a-victim homilies are dispensed and the wicked are punished in the most obvious way possible.

But Perry is in such a hurry to get the audience to its feel-good moments that major chunks of the plot don’t make sense. It’s one thing for Candy to be released from prison after Linda trumped up charges against her, but why does Madea become the focus of the free-the-prisoners movement when she’s actually guilty of the crimes of which she’s been accused?

And while Josh’s desire to help Candy is explained, his eventual romantic feelings for this drug-addicted and deeply troubled young woman are so sketchily assembled that you want to send him to an Al-Anon meeting.

The one good thing Perry always does is provide work for talented black actresses, and this time it’s Oscar nominee Viola Davis, as a concerned social worker, who does far better by Perry’s script than it ever does for her. But most of the rest of the cast — including “Cosby Show” vet Knight Pulliam — fail to bring it.

Not that any of this matters to the core Tyler Perry audience. He knows how to push their buttons and get tears and laughter — and there is some laughter to be had — when he wants to. It’s just disappointing that the most successful African-American filmmaker of this generation refuses to try any harder than that.