Tyler Perry in Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to JailTYLER PERRY'S MADEA GOES TO JAIL

Tyler Perry's wildly popular, drag-act creation Madea - the tough-talking matriarch (played by Perry himself) with zero tolerance for foolishness, church, and most of her family members - is an admittedly entertaining figure. Yet she's a really odd character to build a movie around, because this bosomy yowler steadfastly refuses to change, or "grow," or develop in any way that could sustain a feature-length narrative; she's a one-joke, and one-rant, conceit. Maybe that's why it always feels like Madea is intruding on her films, even the ones with her name in the title. By necessity, the movies in which she appears have to treat her as a special guest star, because if they were just 100-ish minutes of Madea's antics, nothing would ever happen in them.

The paradox, of course, is that audiences desperately want her to be the center of attention, as she's generally the most entertaining thing about Perry's films, and that's certainly the case with the new Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail. Whenever its focus rests on Perry's no-nonsense alter ego, spitting out withering insults and steamrolling over everyone in her path, the film has energy and drive, and an impressive amount of comic charge. But you're never allowed to enjoy this hulking hellion for very long, because she only shows up in quick, five-minute bursts, while the majority of the film is devoted to an unconvincing melodrama in which Derek Luke's attorney tries to rehabilitate a smack-addicted prostitute, played by The Cosby Show's Keshia Knight Pulliam. (Rudy, no-o-o-o!!!)

Perry is a first-rate entertainer and a fantastically shrewd entrepreneur, but it's not yet clear if screenwriting or directing can be counted among his talents; the compositions in Madea Goes to Jail are depressingly stagnant, the pacing is oftentimes excruciating, and the plotting keeps nose-diving into camp absurdity. (Just wait 'til the moment here when the prospective bridegroom tells off his hateful bride-to-be at the altar.) And while the frequently naked sincerity on display is admirable - my joking notwithstanding, Pulliam is quite effective here - it also has a strange, double-edged effect of (a) making the rest of the movie look puny and ridiculous, and (b) being so forcefully overscaled that you'd almost prefer the puny and ridiculous. During a scene of Luke breaking down in mucus-y sobs, you don't know whether to be amazed (because his acting appears raw and unsentimental) or embarrassed (because what he's sobbing about is such piffle).

Yet while I found Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail to be an intensely sticky blend of high drama and low comedy (or perhaps the other way around), it does feature one element that's unassailably cool: Viola Davis. Playing a street-smart minister who offers guidance but isn't blind to life's grim realities, Doubt's Oscar nominee all but burns a hole in the screen with her impassioned focus and humanity, and it's a shame that the one character in the movie that can actually stand toe to toe with her only gets to do so in one brief scene. Tyler Perry's Madea Versus Viola - now that's a face-off I'd pay handsomely to see.


Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen in Fired Up!FIRED UP!

Director Will Gluck's high-schoolers-go-to-cheerleading-camp-to-get-laid comedy Fired Up! is pretty much everything you'd expect it to be: crass, misogynistic, homophobic, and deeply, almost sociopathically, shallow. It's also something you probably wouldn't expect it to be: really, really funny. The script is credited to one Freedom Jones, which is apparently a pseudonym, but for the life of me I can't understand the need for pseudonymity here; frankly, had I written a script this verbally dexterous, sneakily subversive, and chock-full of insanely quotable dialogue, I'd be bragging about it to everybody in Hollywood. (Based on the Web research I've done, the true identity of the movie's author/authors remains a mystery, although Diablo Cody's name has been bandied about, and much of Fired Up! does suggest the Juno screenwriter's pop-culture savvy and ironic knowingness.)

From our first introduction to Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) - serial horn-dogs at Gerald R. Ford High School - it's clear that we're not meant to take anything in the film the least bit seriously. The leads banter with a speed and aggressive cleverness that would shame the Howard Hawks of His Girl Friday, and none of the words they speak seem to have been formed in the guys' brains before tumbling out of their mouths; they're purely punchline receptacles. The actors, though, are extraordinarily confident receptacles, their punchlines are, for the most part, sharp and pointed ones, and while the plotting may be (intentionally) lame-brained, don't be fooled - Fired Up! boasts considerable braininess.

All during its zippy, 90-minute running length, the film offers a ceaseless parade of demographic-defying references (Tracy & Hepburn, Nathan Lane), delirious throwaways ("the closet door is made of all kinds of wood"), and gratifyingly mean attacks on former pop staples (one character reveals his foolishness by crooning along to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "I Get No Doubt" and calling the songs "the music of my life"). And while the movie revels in stereotypes, to be sure, it never appears less than fully aware of what it's doing, presenting its instantly familiar characters - sensitive love interest, bitchy rival, dickhead fiancé, flamboyant gay - with tongue firmly in cheek. Gluck and "Freedom Jones" know that we know how silly and formulaic this all is, and, acting accordingly, design Fired Up! as a vicious parody of the type of movie it's selling itself as.

What results is a comedy that's far smarter than the audience it was designed for, so I guess its miserable opening-weekend box-office intake - roughly $6 million - shouldn't be surprising. It is, however, intensely disheartening, especially in a current movie-going climate that finds 2009's most staggeringly stupid releases emerging as $100-million-plus hits. Fired Up! may be "just" a rowdy, randy slapstick, but believe me, there's far more wit to be found in one exchange here ("You know what John Lennon said... ." "Not really. I'm not in my fifties. But I could ask my dad!") than you'll find in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken combined.

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