THE Screened Review by Matthew Marko
Tyler Perry’s seventh Madea film is probably the biggest role he’s written for his most famous character yet, and certainly it’s being sold as having broader appeal. But if you aren’t already on board with Perry’s cartoonish, often blindly offensive brand of humor yet, there’s nothing here for you.
I have a confession to make: I’ve seen every Tyler Perry movie. Not that I like them, though often I find them hilarious for reasons both intended and accidental. And not that I feel it’s my duty to see them to be well rounded. I just find his movies fascinating. He’s a modern Ed Wood, a writer-director with wild ambition and absolutely no storytelling talent, though unlike the now infamous Wood, Perry has never had problems selling his slew of movies to audiences, even if they’re mostly African American audiences, who eat up his films. When you think of the freedom he has, and the actors he can get, he enters a realm of influence that few can match. That doesn’t excuse him and his often-terrible movies, but it has roped me into following this rabbit hole as deep as it goes.
I joked in the forums recently that much like the Matrix, nobody can be told what Madea is; they simply have to see it for themselves. This is probably the truest explanation for Tyler Perry’s giant cross dressing mascot, a Mammy character that regularly sends even his most straight-laced plots careening into lunacy just by arriving on the edges. Even the movies that have featured her in the title have used her less than one might expect. She’s Perry’s unique blend of herbs and spices—too much and you’ll spoil the soup, too little and you’ll end up with something bland (like Perry’s ‘legitimate’ films like Daddy’s Little Girls or For Colored Girls).
So it came as a shock to me that Madea’s Witness Protection is the most Madea-heavy movie yet, especially since it seemed to be focused mostly on the white cast (Eugene Levy in particular) in one of Perry’s rare bids for ‘wider’ box office appeal. That must have just been a marketing gimmick, as this movie is deep in Madea territory, and brings the newcomers along in a crash course in that particular brand of lunacy.
Simply put, it stars Eugene Levy as George Needleman, a bumbling businessman who wakes up one day to find out that he was apparently in charge of a giant, half billion dollar Ponzi scheme that he was totally clueless about. All of his colleagues have taken their paychecks and bailed, leaving George to take the fall. Even worse, most of that half billion dollars, supposedly all from charities, came instead from the mafia, who were using the investments to launder money. Now George is stuck facing life in prison or death at the hands of the mafia unless he can find some way out of the mess he finds himself.
Enter Brian (Tyler Perry), the straight man lawyer now turned District Attorney, frequently the sanest person in Perry’s movies. He’s willing to work with George to help prove his innocence, provided he testifies against the mob. In the meantime, he needs to keep George and his family somewhere safe, somewhere even the FBI wouldn’t think to look. That place, of course, is at the home of his Aunt Madea.
Much hullabaloo is made about a family of rich white folks showing up on Madea’s doorstep, not least of which by Madea (Perry again) herself. The most vocal opponent of this idea is Brian’s father and Madea’s brother Joe (Perry, yes, again), who seems ill at ease with the idea of these intruders, especially when George’s senile mother Barbara (Doris Roberts, who deserves better than this movie but plays along anyway) takes an interest in Joe. Madea takes them in, mostly for the money, and we get 40 minutes of Madea’s particular down home version of tough love trying to straighten out the dysfunctional Needleman family, from teaching George to stand up for himself to teaching his wife, Kate (Denise Richards), how to properly discipline her daughter.
It’s pretty broad stuff, even for Tyler Perry. The overdose of Madea in this movie really tips it towards cartoon levels of gags and set ups, from Madea thwarting would-be muggers to casually pretending to George’s daughter that her father is dead in order to get a reaction and teach her a lesson. It’s the kind of tone-deaf ‘humor’ that one should come to have expected from a Perry movie at this point, shouting for the cheap seats and playing even heavier with the racial stereotypes than usual. The worst to come out of this is George, who spends the entire film in whining paroxysms of despair, throwing up his arms and wondering why everything bad has to always happen to him. He is every lame white guy stereotype under the sun, and Levy takes to it gamely. I guess this is where his career is when he isn’t doing American Pie movies, and probably deservedly so for someone with more eyebrows than talent.
The problem is, for all of the typical Madean antics, the film seems incredibly consequence free. Normally Perry’s films are filled with crazy left turn tragedies and subplots that stomp across whatever joy there is with cloying Christian moralizing and enough rape and/or child abuse backstories to fell even the sturdiest of scripts. All of that is neatly tucked under the rug for this movie, but Perry isn’t up to providing any sort of climax in its place. There’s a lot of culture clash, some moments where everybody learns from everybody else, and then Madea solves their problems (with the world’s most elaborate Ghost reference, no less), and everything is fine. The mafia don’t even show up, creating the weirdest first-act MacGuffin I’ve seen in a movie in some time. How Perry forgot to have a scene with Madea shooting it out with some gangsters I have no idea, but he did.
It’s strange that in a week where Perry seems to be trying to break out of his mold, what with the Alex Cross trailer hitting and him saying he’s going to be making a science fiction movie because he didn’t like Prometheus that we get this film. It’s his most straightforward comedy yet, not without its laughs but exactly the kind of easy vaguely offensive outdated character comedy that people who have never seen a Tyler Perry movie probably imagine them to be like. It’s incredibly safe, which in Perry-land equates to boring, with little of the jaw dropping lunacy of Why Did I Get Married, Too? or its ilk. There’s little particularly wrong with it, but it seems like such a lazy riff on Perry’s typical trappings, and seems so calculated to try to get new blood into the theaters, that I’m left wondering who exactly was on the fence about Perry and was supposed to have their minds changed by this. If Perry isn’t already somebody you watch (and I assume the numbers are small for that), then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you over.