Without neglecting his base, prolific multihyphenate Tyler Perry makes a fair bid for crossover success with “Madea’s Witness Protection,” another rowdy comedy constructed around the trash-talking, quick-tempered materfamilias of an extended African-American family. This time, Madea (Perry in drag) must open her home to a conspicuously Caucasian dysfunctional family at the request of her nephew (Perry in a business suit), a federal prosecutor who must hide the clan from mob killers. The interaction among opposites inspires an abundance of predictable race-based jokes, many of which have the saving grace of actually being funny.
Eugene Levy hits all the right notes as George Needleman, a Wall Street investment bank exec who’s been set up as a fall guy for one of his company’s shadier sidelines, a mob-backed Ponzi operation that has bilked charities for millions.
Desperate to avoid a long-term prison sentence, the oblivious bean-counter agrees to relocate with his family — trophy second wife Kate (Denise Richards), sullen teen daughter Cindy (Danielle Campbell), overweight son Howie (Devan Leos) and borderline-senile mom Barbara (Doris Roberts) — to Madea’s quiet little corner of Atlanta.
The Needlemans expect to stay with Madea and her grumpy brother Uncle Joe (Perry in old-age makeup and overalls) until George finds a way to help prosecutors track down the millions diverted by the mob. But that’s just long enough for Madea to share with George and Kate her distinctive tough-love methods for rearing troublesome children, and for George and Madea to launch a bold plan to retrieve the missing money on their own.
“Witness Protection” is something less than waterproof when it comes to adhering to its own inner logic. Although much is made of the need for the Needlemans to maintain a low profile — and to avoid sticking out as white folks in a neighborhood where, as Madea warns, “nothin’ ain’t white” — Madea insists on enrolling both Cindy and Howie in a local school. (Perry wisely refrains from showing the siblings intermingling with classmates.) Late in the story, Madea appears to pull off a profitable scam, but there’s no pay-off narrative-wise for this plot twist.
Even so, pic features enough raucous humor to please longtime fans of the Madea franchise, while soft-pedaling the spiritual uplift that Perry typically oversells in his comedies. Better still, Perry has almost entirely eschewed the soap-operatics that have weighed heavily in his previous efforts. Here, he’s playing almost entirely for laughs, and it’s a winning game plan more often than not.
Special credit must go to Roberts for finding a fresh way to play a cliched character — and for the amusement she and Perry generate during a deftly sustained scene in which Barbara and Uncle Joe remember a decades-earlier close encounter. Richards also gets a few laughs when she channels her inner Madea to deal with her misbehaved kids.
As usual, Madea tends to dominate the proceedings through sheer force of her unrestrained bluster, and it must be noted that Perry’s over-the-top shtick in this role is wearing thin. On the other hand, Madea’s fish-out-of-water antics during a third-act trip to New York prove funny enough to suggest that, if he wants to sustain this franchise, Perry would do well to take his act on the road more often.
Tech values are adequate.