Madea's Witness Protection, the twelfth feature film written and directed by Tyler Perry, and the seventh in which he plays the lamentably iconic fat, sassy Atlanta grandma Mabel "Madea" Simmons. I do not quite know what to make of this movie - and is that not the main calling card of Perry's cinema? It's all so damn perplexing - the easy part is saying, "oh, well this is bad, of course", but then actually saying what about it is bad becomes a bit tricky, and the longer you think about it the harder it is to confidently say "this is bad", and maybe it's actually some kind of fascinatingly anti-cinematic outsider art (this is, at any rate, my explanation for why I kind of worship For Colored Girls).
That, at any rate, doesn't seem to be a risk that Witness Protection runs. It is, maybe, the most conventionally bad of all Perry's Madea films; but it is, then, the most conventional overall. If nothing else, it is in possession of, by a commanding margin, the most structurally sound screenplay of any of the Madea vehicles outside of I Can Do Bad All by Myself, which anyway only features a Madea cameo and is not, properly speaking, a "Madea film". For as you may know but probably do not, the customary arc of a Madea adventure is that there is a roiling melodrama about a woman caught in a hideous domestic nightmare in one plot, and there is a farcical series of petty annoyances plaguing Madea in the other other plot, and after a little bit of time the two plots converge so that Madea, in order to get out of her petty annoyances is obliged to give some sassy, wise trash-talking to the screwed up woman. The degree to which these two movies cohere varies from film to film (for example, it takes almost the entire length of Madea Goes to Jail before the plots even begin to coalesce), but in the main, that's what you've got: frantically messagey soap opera about a Good Woman Gone Wrong and goofy damn comedy in which Perry gets all caked in latex to play the snappish Madea and her lewd brother Joe.
Witness Protection turns all those expectations on their head, though, by working more or less exactly as a normal, internally coherent comedy ought to do: character introduced, his situation grows worse, Madea can fix his situation, he and Madea bounce off of each other for the next two hours. No need to integrate two incompatible narrative threads or tonally dissonant genres. Presumably, this makes Witness Protection "better" than Perry's average; certainly, it feels more like an actual movie than any other Madea vehicle, and not so much like an artifact from a culture where movies and drama are completely alien concepts (this is probably because Witness Protection is the first Madea story written directly for the screen, and not adapted from one of Perry's church plays). At the same time, it's for that exact reason that it's easier to judge it as a movie, and not some haunting missive from Perry's unfiltered id. And judged as a movie, it's not a terribly good one. Nor a terribly bad one; and in addition to his narrative style being somewhat more ironed-out here, Perry's aesthetic choices as director have improved noticeably from his other comedies, to the point that the film merely looks unexceptional rather than horrid. There are still some bizarrely ineffective editing mishaps, mostly involving scenes when three different characters all played by Perry need to interact, and the pacing gets off really terribly, as though the scenes were cut before the dialogue was dubbed in, and then not fixed. But this is as far as it goes.
No, the movie is just kind of lukewarm and mediocre, and this is both disappointing and a clean step forward in different ways. The movie is, as you might be able to guess from the title, about a federal witness who's remanded into Madea's custody: this is George Needleman (Eugene Levy), the CFO of a large financial company's charitable wing who learns on a Saturday morning that he's been groomed for five years as the fall guy for a mobbed-up money laundering scheme. At this same time - busy Saturday - Atlanta DA Brian Simmons (Perry) has gotten the go-ahead from his boss to investigate the same mob's financial doings, and has determined that George might be the exact perfect target to serve as star witness. Tasked with finding the one place that George can be kept absolutely safe, Brian naturally turns to his larger-than-life Aunt Madea, and so it is that five white New Yorkers - George, his much younger wife Kate (Denise Richards), his dementia-riddled mother, Barbara (Doris Roberts), his resentful daughter by a previous marriage, Cindy (Danielle Campbell), and his emotionally abandoned son, Howie (Devan Leos).
I called this basically a regular movie: but I over-spoke. In a regular movie, there'd be some business with Madea having to actually, you know, protect George from gangsters. There's not even a modest whisper of such a plot creeping in. Instead, she's on hand to shake some sense into the family, daydream about murdering Cindy, and at the very least, teaching the teen some respect for her elders. Then, when that subplot has run its course, George ropes her in to helping him steal some of the embezzled money back for the charities it was taken from - and in so doing, helping to save the church that has been financially threatened by the mismanagement of Jake (Romeo Miller), a young man in Madea's sphere of influence - by traveling to New York and posing as a rich socialite, resulting in culture-clash humor (and enlivened by some startlingly low-fi location shooting in a New York hotel room), though as with Madea Goes to Jail, in which Madea did not go to jail for some two-thirds or more of the running time, the misadventures of Madea on an airplane or in ritzy hotel surroundings promised by the ad campaign don't come along until solidly 90 minutes into the films 114-minute running time.
It is not mine to call this funny or not; the debate as to whether Madea is delightful or garish, and whether she is all good fun or the most regressive thing to happen to African-Americans in a generation, has been fought to a standstill. We have Madea films; we all know what that means, good or ill or very, very ill.
But with that caveat done, it's not funny: the film gets too tripped up over the cultural elements that go nowhere (Perry makes sure we're all aware that this is the first Madea picture with a lot of white people in it, but he doesn't have anything interesting to say with that), and suffers from a mostly unlikable cast, and this a real problem: whatever else is true of them, most of Perry's movies are truly great opportunities for criminally under-served African-American actors to dig into really meaty, big roles, but that is of course not an issue here, unless you consider the perpetual absence of Lil' Romeo from cinema screens to be a crime against acting. Watching Taraji P. Henson or Gabrielle Union or Kimberly Elise really let go and tear it up is a rare enough treat that it's worth putting up with the Perryness of his movies to get to them; watching Eugene Levy play a panicky urbanite who talks really fast when he's nervous is not quite as hard to do, and much of the film doesn't even play as Tyler Perry, but as yet another example in the evergreen "Levy slumming it for a paycheck" subgenre, with weird special guest appearances from Madea. As far as Levy slumming it, I'd rather see Madea's Witness Protection again than, say, The Man or New York Minute, but by that point we have reached praise so faint that it cannot be seen through Earth's atmosphere without the most powerful of telescopes.
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