In many ways, Madea (Tyler Perry) is the least important character in her movies. She might be the main draw to bring fans into the theater, but for a crazy old woman prone to shooting off her mouth, acting impulsively and threatening harm, she is remarkably consistent. She always brings the same mix of energy, humor, charisma and moral jugment. Consequently, it’s the characters around her who determine whether each film is above average or below average, and in Witness Protection, those supports leave little to be desired.
Madea has always played best when she’s been a foil, the most ridiculous person in the room called in like a ringer to provide an instant spark and a whole lot of laughs. Unfortunately, the scenes without her or her brother Joe Simmons in Witness Protection feel lifeless and easy. They lack any kind of spark or humor, which makes Eugene Levy push his typical, awkward, middle-aged white dude to an unrealistic and uncomfortable extreme in an attempt to generate laughs. When that doesn’t work, the film even gets a bit gimmicky, introducing a male authority with a really high voice and a female authority with a really low voice. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not particularly good either. Altogether, it amounts to a dozen or so funny scenes featuring Madea and/or Joe and a dozen or so scenes that swing and miss en route to advancing a rather generic plot.
That story arc involves a Ponzi scheme unintentionally run by George Needleman (Levy). Our protagonist is a hapless yes-man who was only promoted from accountant to CFO because his boss (Tom Arnold) needed someone to bury when it all came crashing down. The avalanche begins in Witness Protection’s first scene. Charities have been defrauded. Mob money has been laundered, and all the high level employees have taken off, leaving George and some pissed off authorities to clean up the mess. They transfer him and his family to Georgia to escape mob hitmen, and while there, he, of course, stays with Madea and Joe.
They offer the Needleman’s shelter, but more importantly for us, they offer laughs and a renewed purpose. George is a spineless pushover. His wife Kate (Denise Richards) hates conflict. Her teenage step-daughter Cindy (Danielle Campbell) is a complete bitch, and her half-brother Howie (Devan Leos) is miserable at baseball. Along with George’s dementia-stricken mother (Doris Roberts), the four are taught lessons, screamed at and pushed back together by Madea and Joe’s hilarious and overbearing hands. They might not work as characters out in the real world, but in Madea’s house, they’re serviceable vehicles to absorb both wisdom, punishments and buckets full of water.
Perry’s biggest fans will definitely find enough reasons here to smile. Watching Madea go through airport security and Joe make a list of his most Joe-like qualities are hilarious and endearing high moments, but all too often, Witness Protection just overtly doesn’t work. There are too many scenes with people singing in falsetto voices in elevators and characters pretending to be French to number this among Perry’s better films. It’s a passable attempt but not a result worth watching over-and-over.
For the past few years, the director has perfected his talent and started making the type of movies that indicate he could eventually produce something special. This is a bit of a step backwards, but it’s not a failure. If you haven’t seen any of the Madea movies, don’t start here. If you’ve enjoyed all the prior efforts, go ahead and pay to see this one. You’ll leave with at least a few funny memories.