With Tyler Perry movies, I’ve found it best to just search for a way to go with it and see where he tries to take you. His homilies, homespun wisdom and relationship/life advice have a touch of Oprah about them — a bit preachy. But he’s gotten in the habit of casting better actors in supporting parts. He’s grown beyond the chitlin’ circuit all-black-cast tenor of his stage plays. And supposedly, he’s learned a thing or two about making movies over the past decade.
But “Madea’s Witness Protection” is, even grading on the curve, a weak effort. His distractions — TV series to oversee, an outside-Madea acting career that he’s trying to get going (playing detective Alex Cross), a film studio to run.
The witless “Witness” has the worst performance of comic Eugene Levy’s storied career, doesn’t even hide where it steals its ideas (“Ghost”), and feels exhausted from the start. Scene after scene has Perry, in his prettiest Madea makeup, straining to find something funny to say — riffing, impatiently trying to improv something, anything, needing to get on with it because he has more important things to worry about.
Prosecutor-nephew Brian (Perry, in less makeup)needs a place to hide a mob-connected accountant whose firm (run by Tom Arnold) just got caught running a Ponzi scheme. Brian talks Madea into taking in the accountant (Levy), his trophy wife (a plastic-faced Denise Richards), mom (Doris Roberts) and two kids. Lots of jokes about the white folk hiding in Madea’s African American neighborhood. More jokes about the dotty old mother not quite being hip to 21st century race relations.
Somehow, mom and old Joe (Perry’s funniest character in this film) have a connection. Somehow, the guilt-ridden accountant has to help the charities that were ripped off by the Ponzi scheme, especially the Atlanta church whose aged pastor (John Amos)entrusted his son (Romeo) with the money,
Somehow, Madea has to get on a plane, go to New York and re-enact Whoopie Goldberg’s Oscar-winning turn in “Ghost,” convincing a bank to transfer money that isn’t hers to foil villains she doesn’t know.
Madea’s first-ever plane trip is a centerpiece, and it’s as unfunny as the movie gets. Perry drags this dull, dated bit about airport security (“What, I’ve got to take my SHOES off?”) on and on, failing utterly to find a laugh in it.
Levy tries to get into the spirit of things, sputtering up to some sort of lather in moments of outrage. Only Roberts, flirting shamelessly with creaky old Joe, manages a giggle. And Perry’s Joe, who starts to wonder about his connection with this New York family, scores a chuckle or two.
“I’ve been looking at your wife. She’s doin’ that Yoda.” Joe is the sage in this film, the one who advises the kid “You’ve got to get in where you fit in.”
Perry needs to keep doing these films to finance his other ambitions. But he can’t rely on simply showing up in a dress to get a laugh any more. He needs to nurture other writers, other talents. He needs people he can trust to make him cut the unfunny fat out of his pictures, to tell him to do another take when he blurts out, “Don’t you know they got those dawg sniffing dawgs here?” Or to tell him that that mistake isn’t any funnier than the line he (drug sniffing dogs) botched.
Otherwise, his sermons will fall on deaf ears, and the good intentions that had him cast Roberts and Richards (who needs the work), John Amos and others, go for naught.