I’m not sure I’ve ever gone into a movie with lower expectations than for Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection. I’ve never seen a full Tyler Perry movie, but I watch enough football to have basically seen House of Payne and Meet the Browns in their entirety. I know the criticisms aimed at him, specifically from some of my favorite actors and filmmakers. And I know that if I’m planning on seeing his latest film on opening weekend, I need to get in line damn early.
I won’t address the problems with drag or the portrayals of racial stereotypes in Perry’s work, other than to say I hope we soon see the day where playing drag for laughs is viewed the same way as blackface. I’m going to stick mostly to the film. Specifically, the film’s message, because Perry is all about the message. Besides, formally speaking, MWP is really dull.
It’s a toothless film of stock characters and missed opportunities, but there is some worthwhile material here. The plot is certainly born out of Recession-era mistrust of big corporations. George Needleman (Eugene Levy) is the fall guy for a Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme that must be pretty horrible—workers are shredding every document in the office. Clearly they’re not too big to fail, and there isn’t a single Michael Bluth in sight. No one would accuse me of being a Levy fan, but it’s a surprisingly not terrible performance—you genuinely care when he realizes that his company is dead and his life is destroyed.
George is no Madoff, just a clumsy ignoramus taking the fall for an evil corporation and on the run from the evil mob. The antagonists here are institutions, not people—faceless and unsympathetic entities that require no exposition or development. The family has to hide in a black neighborhood because why would the mob ever walk down a Martin Luther King Boulevard? That joke is funny because institutionalized racism is always funny, you guys. George’s bratty kids act the way people who have forgotten how to be young expect kids to act, because it’s always funny to see entitled teenagers get their comeuppance from a tough-talking grandmamma. Kate (Denise Richards, in a completely believable role as a non-gold digging trophy wife) likes yoga and low-carb diets, which Madea mistakes for “yogurt” and “low-crab,” because it’s hilarious when people mishear things.
Imagine how much more interesting it would’ve been had George been an actual thief? Suppose, for instance, he was concerned about protecting his family, and Madea was forced to babysit a despicable corporate stooge? Or that his kids were nice, well-meaning kids who weren’t sure how to forgive their father? What if the characters were any kind of interesting or the movie took any kind of risk?
Instead, a clumsy, middle-class-despite-being-a-CFO white guy gets to be saved by a hardworking lawyer (Brian, Perry’s straight character). Madea gets to be outlandishly sassy to a couple of entitled white kids. Perry’s old black man character—impossible to distinguish from Tracy Morgan’s Uncle Jemima—gets to be . . . funny?
Much has been made of Perry’s penchant for Christian morality fables. Witness Protection isn’t the most egregious of these that I’ve ever seen, but the Madea character is the embodiment of another concept that’s just as boring: middle-class wish fulfillment. Much like a crime thriller where the good guys always win without being bogged down by police department bureaucracy (hey, there’s Perry starring in a James Patterson adaptation), Madea gets to dole our her brand of homespun justice with little resistance. In one scene, a mugger—wearing a clown mask borrowed directly from the Joker’s props department—has hidden in her car. The mugger puts a gun to her head, so she starts in with her matronly tough-talking. When the mugger refuses to put the gun down or to shoot her, she embarks on a reckless driving spree where the mugger gets his head knocked around. Wear you seatbelts and stay in school, kids.
The mugger, it turns out, is the son of a pastor. He’s set to succeed his father, but the church funds are low and they may lose their building. I certainly didn’t expect that turn, and that in and of itself would make a really interesting movie. The thread is left stranded, though, because moral ambiguity isn’t funny, and blah blah blah, redemption for the kid, he’s not a mugger anymore.
Perry is a man with a code, but he isn’t interested in exploring what that morality means. He can hear what the pastor’s preaching and then pantomime it, but he can’t translate it into a different language. He’s not interested in what causes societal ills, he’s interested in treating the symptoms. Nothing in this movie cares about why there are racially divided neighborhoods all across America, or how the culture on Wall Street became so greedy, or the complexities of why a young pastor-to-be would turn to armed robbery to save his church. He just wants to put on a dress and yell at everything. It’s a black film Sarah Palin could get behind.
It may sound like I’m describing a drama, not a comedy, when I say what I wanted out of this movie. Some sort of Malcolm X–Wall Street crossover. That’s not the case. You can make comedies about this stuff. What’s especially irritating is that Perry is talented. There is heart to his films, which is rare. Witness Protection isn’t terrible. It’s frustratingly mediocre. And Perry shows no indication of a desire to rise above that mediocrity.