Viewers who are unfamiliar with the Madea movies may be tempted to lump them all together, but not all of these films are created equal. Behold the slippery slope that has brought us from the best one so far, last year’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” to the very worst, “Madea’s Witness Protection.”
Despite his love of possessory credits, Tyler Perry is not what one might call the most disciplined filmmaker working today. But even by his standards, this is a slipshod, lazy and seemingly thrown-together piece of work.
It wastes the talents of not just Eugene Levy and Doris Roberts but of Perry himself, whose cross-dressing creation Madea has often been the saving comedic grace of Perry’s films.
The Atlanta-based auteur has gone on record saying that because Madea has become so popular with young viewers that he has toned her down -- no more weed-smoking or gun-toting. But here she’s been rendered so inert that she goes from outrageous to, by the end of the movie’s seemingly interminable running time, fairly annoying and repetitive.
Worst of all, she’s still the best thing this film has to offer.
Levy stars as George Needleman, a nebbishy accountant who discovers that he’s been the patsy for a corporation that’s been running a Ponzi scheme and laundering money for organized crime. To testify against his former employers and against the mob, he and his family have to go into hiding, so lawyer Brian (Perry) -- who’s either a district attorney or a federal one (the movie’s never quite clear) -- brings the Needlemans to Atlanta to camp out with Brian’s aged father Joe (Perry) and aunt Madea (Perry).
If you thought the business talk in Perry’s “Good Deeds” was maddeningly vague, just wait until Brian and George push a bunch of papers back and forth and exchange gibberish about Swiss bank accounts and wire transfers. While George tries to unravel his boss’ chicanery, Madea and Joe dispense life lessons to George’s young second wife Kate (Denise Richards) and their children (Danielle Campbell and Devan Leos).
George’s bratty, argumentative daughter is exactly the kind of character that Madea would have traditionally smacked around and berated until she learned to respect her elders. But whether it’s because of the kinder, gentler Madea, or because Perry was uncomfortable having the character exercise her violent shtick on white characters, Madea instead fixes this snotty teen over the course of one conversation where the old lady even keeps her hands hidden under the table.
For a movie about witness protection, you’d think there’d be the teensiest amount of tension regarding George and his family being discovered by the bad guys, but Perry clearly isn’t interested. So we get a bunch of white suburbanites hiding out in what we’re told repeatedly is an all-black neighborhood, and no one seems to notice, not even nosey neighbor Marla Gibbs, who is introduced in one scene only to disappear for the rest of the movie.
Gibbs’ character is only one of many plot threads to be raised and discarded over the course of the film — there’s a go-nowhere joke about Joe and George’s mother (Roberts) having had a fling decades earlier — and if the “hilarious” outtakes over the closing credits are any indication, there was apparently a huge amount of improvisation going on during shooting. Many excellent films have been made that way, but Perry never structures things enough here so that we get any kind of character payoffs or interesting plot. Ultimately, whether written in advance or made up on the spot, what we get on screen is sorely lacking in laughs.
The midnight audience (with the exception of his would-be Oscar-bait “For Colored Girls,” Perry refuses to pre-screen his films for critics) got some of the evening’s biggest laughs at the “Alex Cross” trailer. If Perry winds up not cutting it as an action star, here’s hoping he can get the formerly funny Madea’s groove back.