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Tyler Perry's 'Madea Goes to Jail'

Tyler Perry's latest effort is half madcap comedy, half soap opera. But even with a nearly two-hour runtime, it doesn't add up to a whole movie.

Perry, the film's writer, producer and director, once again dons a fat suit and drag to play Mabel M. Simmons, the hefty, volatile matriarch better known as Madea. A silver-haired, foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking id, Madea has never met a problem that can't be solved with aggression. After Madea clears out a party with a machine-gun and bogarts a parking space using a forklift she lands in jail, where she promptly shoves a convict's head into a laundry press.

What does this have to do with Josh (Derek Luke), a dapper young prosecutor trying to rescue his childhood friend Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam) from a life of prostitution? Nothing at all, but Perry has never met a premise that can't be padded with subplots. As a result, the film flip-flops schizophrenically and without warning between broad slapstick and tear-streaked melodrama.

A gifted writer but a slapdash filmmaker, Perry has a bad habit of letting his actors guide themselves, which can make for some painfully bumpy moments: People repeat their lines, miss their cues and improvise helplessly. At least Perry has an eye for talent: Viola Davis, Oscar-nominated for her brief role in " Doubt," here plays a tough-talking charity-worker, and Vanessa Ferlito ( "Nothing Like the Holidays") adds a dash of realism as Candace's partner on the streets.

"Madea" tries to liven things up with a bevy of cameos -- Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey, Al Sharpton -- and eventually ties everything into the tidiest knot it can. The film's funniest moment, and this isn't saying much, comes when Madea spots a Christian bracelet inscribed "WWJD?" She takes a scornful guess: "What's Wrong with Jermaine Dupri?"

PLOT Something about a hot-tempered matriarch, a young prosecutor and a hooker in need of help.

CAST Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Viola Davis, Keshia Knight Pulliam

LENGTH 1:43.

PLAYING AT Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE Comedy and drama mix like oil and water in this thin concoction.

(PG-13)

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