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Writer's Viewpoint: The Overwrought, Weighty Melodrama Of Tyler Perry's Movies Is Abysmal

Kris King Kris King
March 31st, 2009 1:19pm EDT
Madea Goes to JailComing across the occasional blind spot is inevitable in the world of popular culture. You may know everything there is to know about "Lost" but when it comes to talking about Twilight, you're completely clueless. Tyler Perry movies are like that for me. His name floated around in my head for years, but I knew next to nothing about his work. I knew that he was a director and a playwright. I knew that his DVD sales were astronomical. And I knew that all of his movies reminded me of Big Momma's House or Honky Grandma Be Trippin'.

I always assumed that Perry was a bit of a DVD phenomenon and nothing more. Perry's newest movie Madea Goes to Jail making nearly $90 million in the box office proved me wrong. Curious, I sat through a marathon of the three Madea films: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, and, of course, "Madea Goes to Jail" and found a series of films that, while amusing when they want to be, have no idea what they are.

One would think that Perry's Mabel "Madea" Simmons lies at the heart of these films, but the hot-tempered grandma comes across more like a secondary character in her own films. Perry consistently shuffles Madea from the spotlight in favor of prosaic Christian melodrama, making his films addled and inconsistent in the process. There's an odd tension when characters from different storylines cross paths, as if they don't belong in the same universe, much less the same movie. Imagine ALF making an appearance on Dallas. It's like that.

Madea Goes to JailIt's a shame that the films put so little faith in Madea. She's a bold character that devours viewers' attention, and she's pretty funny to boot. If the other characters would just clam up and listen to Madea, the audience could be spared Perry's stiff drama and enjoy an abusive husband getting molten grits splashed in his face and then beaten with a pan an hour sooner.

One could say that Perry's drama loses its resonance in the films' transition from stage to screen - but Amadeus was a play and that movie doesn't suck. The overwrought, weighty melodrama of Perry's movies is abysmal. His plots and characters are so similar that it's easy to confuse what happens in one movie with what happens in the next. "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion" both feature a woman locked in an abusive relationship with a successful, two-faced man, only to eventually find love with a working class Christian with perfectly sculpted hair. The characters do so little to differentiate themselves that it's hard to keep track of what's happening to whom, and just when you think you have it all figured out, Madea shows up and things downshift into slapstick again. It doesn't help matters that the dialogue borders on criminal. For example: "I can't stop thinking about you. I carry you in my spirit. I pray for you more than I pray for myself. I've got it so bad for you I'd... I'd go to the grocery store and buy your feminine products, I swear I would."

It's plain that Perry's movies primarily target middle class, black Christians - an audience that isn't afraid of drug humor but wants to see a wholesome Christian message at the end of the day. Perry shoehorns Christianity into his films with the delicacy of a Christian Broadcasting Network after-school special. His characters tend to literally preach to one another about letting Christ into their lives, which bogs down Perry's themes of forgiveness, loyalty and family and, to put it bluntly, makes his movies blunt and stupid.

To complicate matters, Perry's Christian messages get muddled in his messy narratives. In "Madea Goes to Jail," an assistant district attorney grovels for forgiveness for failing to protect his childhood friend from a gang rape that led her to a life of prostitution - then he publicly humiliates his bitchy fiancé and leaves her at the alter.. Perry plays both sides. Ever the populist, Perry wants his characters to do the Christian thing, but realizes that coming to terms with your enemies doesn't exactly make for a fulfilling ending. The titular mad black woman of the first film only comes to forgive her abusive husband after torturing him, turning Perry's slapstick-Christian-drug-melodrama into Misery for several scenes. So much for not harboring a grudge

I don't think I'll ever understand the popularity of Tyler Perry. Madea's low-brow humor played with a wink works and even manages to drive home a point or two, but whatever successes Perry has with his films he drowns in emotional excess. He seems determined to prove that he is more than a fat suit and wig and drags down his films with obtuse soap opera-caliber plots. Between crack addicted mothers, traumatic childhood incest, and more abusive relationships than you can count. Perry's plotlines circle around and become funny again. The funniest moment in the whole series is when Maya Angelou steps up to recite a poem at Madea's family reunion, and frankly, I don't think that was played for laughs.

Watch "Madea Goes to Jail Trailer"




Tyler Perry



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Kris King
Story by Kris King

Starpulse contributing writer