Madea’s Witness Protection is Tyler Perry’s 14th feature film and the 17th to star Madea, his most popular creation. Madea, the linebacker-sized mammy performed by Perry in drag, has always been either the sticking or selling point of the seven films in which she’s featured, and even though she usually exists only in the margins of her own movies, she’s the one element nobody forgets. Most of the Madea movies are framed the same way: A young woman, often a victim of some form of abuse, struggles to find a way out of the lifestyle that binds her, often with the advice, support, or physical backing of Madea, who, much like Mexico’s Cantinflas, functions as both comic relief and moral backbone. (Perry is an exemplary manager of tone, oscillating back and forth between seriousness and slapstick wildly; that he manages to juggle laughs and feeling without mucking the two is one of his defining qualities as a screenwriter and director, and it’s consistently the most interesting aspect of his work.) This formula has served Perry well, because it allows him to work a fully realized emotional center into films that might have otherwise played out as straight-up comedies—and because the drama becomes just as important as the laughs, it never feels like an afterthought.
One of the most striking things about Madea’s Witness Protection, then, is that it hews more closely to the tone of a comedy than perhaps any Perry film before it, largely because the typical struggling-black-woman subplot has been exchanged for one about a hapless white man named George Needleman, played by Eugene Levy. Levy brings a great deal of humor to the film (as does Denise Richards, who plays his yoga-loving trophy wife), but his subplot, in which he’s ushered into witness protection after taking the fall in a corporate Ponzi scheme, has less inherent pathos than, say, the story of a young woman whose abusive fiancée won’t allow her to leave him, which was the robust plot of Madea’s Family Reunion. Witness Protection is the first Madea film not based on one of Perry’s enormously successful plays, which, along with the introduction of a few recognizable white stars, has lead many to speculate that this is Perry’s attempt to open his franchise up to a broader audience. But make no mistake: His peculiar, distinctive approach hasn’t been the least bit diluted, which is to say that Perry fans will find as much to love here as in any of the films that came before it.
That the film is slightly more streamlined as a comedy does, however, make it easier for Perry to work more of his trademark Madea gags into the proceedings, and as a result Witness Protection is the funniest Madea film yet. Its most memorable set pieces—particularly a run-in with airport security that goes about as expected—necessitate some slightly awkward narrative contortions, but the film moves ahead so briskly that it never quite feels like it’s stumbling. How funny you find these one-liners will depend principally on your interest in Perry’s style of humor (which is to say that if you disliked any of the previous films in the series, Witness Protection is unlikely to change your mind), but it should be clear even to the unamused that Perry handles structure and pacing better than most comic filmmakers working—and in a manner that’s entirely his own.
Because the Needlemans are less serious protagonists than those who starred in Madea’s earlier outings, Witness Protection seems at first like a distinctly airier and therefore arguably less substantial work. But Perry finds a workable compromise in Jake, the son of a pastor who lost his church’s $114,000 mortgage fund after losing it in the same scam that framed George. Jake, remorseful of the mistake but unable to break the bad news to his father, becomes the much-needed heart of the film, and his scenes give Witness Protection just enough emotional heft to round it out, elevating it above the more tepid Madea Goes to Jail territory. Perry’s films, after all, are appealing for their earnestness and warmth as much as they are for their quips and sight gags, and it’s telling that even if Witness Protection is the most straightforward comedy feature he’s produced to date, it remains buoyed by the same open heart that makes his best work so endearing.