The thin plot involves George Needleman, a lowly accountant (Levy), who finds out that he unwittingly participated in a ponzi scheme that laundered money for a mob family through bogus charities set up by his boss. Now that the jig is up, George is set up to take the fall and go to jail unless he can figure out how they did it right under his nose. Guided by his lawyer Brian, played by an out-of-drag Perry, he and his family seek refuge at none other than Chez Madea while they try to keep him from going to jail. George's mother Barbara (Roberts), his young wife (Richards) and his two kids are rich white folks trying to live incognito in the 'hood. Twenty years ago that might have been a mildly humorous conceit, but here it feels pretty stale. There are some funny moments, the best of which come from Perry as Brian's father Joe (brother of Madea) and his interactions with the Needleman's. Though Madea is the star of the film, Perry is the funniest and most convincing as the mischievous old man. It's just too bad his subplot doesn't get more screen time (or a real resolution). Roberts also gets some good laughs as George's senile mother and Levy is predictably awkward and meek. Richards's role as the beautiful trophy wife should have been easy enough, and under a director with a surer hand it might've been, but in this film, written, directed and produced by Perry himself, she isn't afforded that luxury. In his defense, Perry is spreading himself pretty thin here juggling those duties along with three acting roles. By now though, when he should be perfecting that balancing act he's been attempting for so many years, it feels like he isn't progressing.
Madea is, at this point, an acquired taste, but she still has some bite for the most part. She has become iconic enough on her own that you don't feel like you're watching Tyler Perry when she's on screen and her Madea-isms can still be funny, although they were better in other films. Despite the fact that the editing is choppy, the music cues feel off and the plot development is glacial for a comedy, if you're already a fan you will probably still enjoy Madea's Witness Protection for the most part, but it's still not likely to be your favorite.
6/10 Stars ******
When watching a Tyler Perry film, it's at once obvious that the director isn't quite comfortable with the medium. It's evident in the editing, the shot choice and even in the performances he gets out of the actors. On stage however, it's clear that Perry is more at home. It makes sense being that he built his brand on his numerous hit gospel musicals in the 90's. It is interesting that none of his films have been adapted as musicals even though he often works with the same actor/singers and has even cast singers like Janet Jackson and Jill Scott in his dramas. Then again, it seems that the music may be taking more of a backseat. The music numbers in I Don't Wanna Do Wrong are so few and far between that you almost forget you're watching a musical during the long stretches of dramatic dialogue. It is to the director's credit however, that the songs don't feel intrusive when they do show up. As is typical in Perry's plays the focus of the story is heart and soul. There are laugh-out-loud moments and life lessons aplenty. The comedic heavy lifting comes from the leads, quirky preacher Wallace (Palmer Williams Jr.) and his feisty wife Hattie, played to the hilt by Patrice Lovely. Her tough old lady schtick has hints of Madea, but doesn't feel like a rehashed imitation as played by Lovely. She also has the strongest solo work on the songs.
Wallace and Hattie have marriage issues that they're hiding not only from the people at church, but also from their adult daughter Yolonda (Kislyck Halsey) who is staying with them while her husband Jamal (Tony Hightower) is deployed in Iraq. Yolonda is in medical school and we soon find out that she and her sexy study partner Marty (Andre Petri) are more than just platonic friends. This, of course, gets complicated when Jamal returns from overseas. Hightower does his best with the one dimensional character he's given, but really shines when he sings. He has a smooth tenor that belies the tough exterior of his character, but manages to convey the vulnerability better than the actual dialogue. Petri's Marty is not as strong vocally, but he is handsome and affable in the role of the sensitive other man.
Halsey is unfortunately the weak link in the ensemble. Her stiff performance doesn't warrant the sympathy the audience is meant to feel for her character's predicament. Her solo on the title song was also the weakest, but in her defense the key did sound wrong for her. She fared better in the finale where she sounded more comfortable, but was still outshone by the other performers. The cast is rounded out by Renee, a friend of Yolonda's played by Alexis Jones exactly as the one note character is written. Thankfully, her voice is nicely displayed on her solo. Besides the opener and the closer, all of the songs are solo showcases for each performer, which consisted of them singing while another cast member (mostly Halsey) awkwardly reacted to the lyrics. The songs themselves, co-penned by Perry and Elvin Ross, were contemporary gospel soul with facile lyrics that were mostly performed well, but didn't necessarily do much to push the story forward or punctuate the theme. I Don't Wanna Do Wrong doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, but it does have enough humor and heart to be entertaining. The sometimes clunky dialogue and broad comedy works much better on the stage and makes for a more satisfying overall experience.
7/10 Stars *******
Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection & I Don't Wanna Do Wrong available now on DVD.