Aside from that episode of The Simpsons where the family has to go into hiding with assumed identities after Sideshow Bob threatens to kill Bart, comedy still hasn’t quite cracked the code on witness protection, despite many tries. (My Blue Heaven, written by the late Nora Ephron, came close, while the Larry the Cable Guy opus Witless Protection and the Hugh Grant travesty Did You Hear about the Morgans?, uh, didn’t.)
It would be a fool’s errand to think Tyler Perry might have been the one to finally pull it off. But still, Madea’s Witness Protection holds some initial promise, what with Eugene Levy playing a disingenuous Wall Street type who becomes the fall guy for his company’s just-exposed Ponzi scheme and has to go South with his beautifully dysfunctional family. Of course, Levy & Co. have to live with the grotesque Madea (Perry, cross-dressing as usual in the role that’s made him a gazillionaire), and one hopes, for a brief instant, that in imagining this culture clash Perry might be trying to break out of his comfort zone, maybe even taking on some of the assumptions made about his comedy — that it appeals mainly to African-American audiences, that its vulgar theatricality is an acquired taste, etc.
Alas, there may be some ambition to the concept, but there’s none to the execution. Instead what we get are typical fish-out-of-water clichés and blandly packaged life lessons, with Levy and the rest of the cast phoning it all in. But Witness Protection is so wan and dispiriting that it might make you yearn for the uncomfortable tonal hodgepodge of earlier Tyler Perry movies. Unlike other Madea films, Witness Protection wasn’t a play before it became a movie, but it still feels strangely stagebound: The story unfolds as a series of exchanges in a series of rooms, often between two people. For all the communal boisterousness one might expect from this sort of thing (and there is one pretty funny scene involving Levy starting to speak in tongues at church), it feels internalized, claustrophobic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Perry as a director not only has no visual style, he seems uninterested in one. His governing aesthetic is point-and-shoot functionality, which might have worked if there were any energy to the proceedings.
When I first saw Madea in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, she had such a crazy, unreal vitality that, for all the broad, unpleasant comedy on display, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The movie was bad, but you weren’t about to forget this creation. This time around, Madea just seems spent. Perry’s delivery barely registers above a mutter, and the jokes, which have always been obvious, lack conviction. He’s still a young guy, but all throughout Witness Protection I imagined Perry sitting glumly at a dressing-room mirror, like the aging Chaplin in Limelight, forlornly rubbing makeup in his face — a tired, old clown stuck in a tired, old routine. I’ve never cared for the man’s shtick, but I kind of hope he regains his mojo someday.