Despite never receiving proper recognition from the critical elite, Tyler Perry’s infamous character Madea, the boisterous old lady that the filmmaker himself plays in drag, has had her share of classic comedy moments. She took a chainsaw to a couch in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” coached her niece on how to throw hot grits at a misbehaving man’s face in “Madea’s Family Reunion,” and revealed an unexpected history as a stripper in “Madea Goes to Jail.”
Furthermore, every one of these scenes were enhanced by the experience of sharing them with Perry’s devout audience, who are moviegoing companions like none other. Watching a Madea comedy in a packed house was enough to restore one’s faith in the theatrical experience during the age of video-on-demand. I say “was” because last year’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family” and now “Madea’s Witness Protection” mark considerable steps down for Perry, who seems to be out of new ideas for his beloved character. No doubt, this entry in the franchise will leave even the most ardent Madea fans laughing considerably less frequently than they did during its predecessors.
The main problem with “Madea’s Witness Protection” is that Madea herself has been minimized; despite the title bearing her namesake, she barely even appears in the movie until the second act. Perry essentially inserts her into a stock story that took five seconds to flesh out. Eugene Levy plays Wall Street executive George Needleman, whose co-workers ran a Ponzi scheme under his nose, only to leave him on the hook. When George is arrested–after a long lead up introducing his problem-riddled family–he and said family are placed under witness protection due to the Mafia’s involvement in the Ponzi scheme. Conveniently, Madea is the Needleman’s host, volunteering her home to the program because it earns her $4,000 a month for little work.
The stories of Perry’s prior Madea films were straight-up soap operas — over-the-top, but nonetheless distinct dramatizations of the issues facing the black community. In “Madea’s Witness Protection,” he trades all that in for a stale sitcom, with every member of George’s family fulfilling an archetype (the father who values work over family, the unaccepted stepmom, the detached teenage daughter, the neglected son, the loopy grandma). Madea is simply used as the Needlemans foil, for no other reason than that she is black and poor and they are white and rich. Sure, Perry’s characterizations are always amusing, but “Madea’s Witness Protection” does not give its title character adequate opportunity to engage in her trademark antics. Madea doesn’t have a “big scene” to bring the house down; Perry trusts that her outrageous personality is enough to drive the movie, but being that her schtick is the same as it was four movies ago, the approach doesn’t work.
The absence of quality social commentary is lamentable, as well. Perry has never been particularly nuanced about his cultural observations, but many of his works have offered topical food-for-thought in addition to the humor. His attempts at such in “Madea’s Witness Protection” are pathetic. Not only is the Ponzi scheme a dated topic, five years after the economic meltdown, but it is accompanied by all the usual simpleton class-warfare themes. Of course, the targets of the Ponzi scheme had to be charities, one of which is a church seen in a groan-inducing subplot featuring Romeo.
The funniest joke in “Madea’s Witness Protection” comes in the outtakes that play over the credits. It’s footage of Perry, in character as Madea, calling an unsuspecting hotel concierge to inquire about the function of the bathroom’s bidet. This got me thinking: perhaps the way for Perry to inject new life into his troubled franchise would be to send Madea to Europe, where she is virtually unknown, and film a “Borat”-style documentary in which the crazy old lady wreaks havoc on real-life subjects. If Perry makes one more uninspired Madea effort like “Witness Protection,” it may mark the unnecessary death of the character that made him famous.