Madea Goes to Jail would've benefited from being a straight-up comedy. The film makes use of an obvious gimmick, as writer-director Tyler Perry dresses in drag to portray the loud-mouthed old woman who doesn't take no for an answer. And while a man in women's clothes always guarantees a laugh, there's also something about the ugly and overweight Madea that makes you like her despite her obvious flaws (an uncontrollable temper, a propensity for troublemaking, etc.).
Can't say the same for the other characters in Perry's film.
The Madea plot (she's in trouble with the law - again) actually takes a back seat to the storyline about Joshua (Derek Luke) and Linda (Ion Overman), two lawyers in love. Up-and-coming prosecutors in the district attorney's office, they're in the process of making plans for their high-profile wedding when Joshua runs into Candy (Keshia Knight Pulliam), an old college friend. Turns out Candy's life has taken the opposite path from Josh's - she's become a prostitute and ended up in court. Joshua has to defer prosecution because of their prior relationship.
Though Josh and Candy's friendship was always platonic, Linda is intensely jealous, especially since Josh takes it upon himself to get Candy off the streets, introducing her to a Bible-beater friend who's sympathetic to her plight. After an overzealous pimp threatens her life, Candy takes refuge at Josh's apartment. That infuriates Linda even more, and she tells Josh he's got to let her go.
So the next time Candy's picked up for prostitution, Linda (don't forget that she's a lawyer too) makes sure she gets a lengthy sentence by tampering with her file. Josh doesn't know about any of this, but he still feels guilty about something that happened in Candy's past and tries to get her out of prison.
If none of this sounds very funny, that's because it isn't. Filled with the kind of soap opera-like drama that's become a trait of a Tyler Perry film (Josh wants to stay true to his roots, and Linda has become so obsessed with wealth and power, she could care less about what goes on in the ghetto), Madea Goes to Jail really gets bogged down by its polarizing politics.
It's too bad, because Madea herself is a real hoot, taking on the cops when they try to throw her in the slammer and starting a fight with the biggest, meanest woman she encounters in prison.
Madea serves as a foil for much of the film's melodrama, and that's another reason it'd be better if we saw more of her. When she's locked up, she gets so tired of hearing all the other inmates' sob stories, she tells them to "suck it up and shut the hell up." It's one of the film's better moments. But too often, shoddy direction and a hackneyed script keep this comedy on lockdown.