You knew I was going to like it, didn't you? Well, let me qualify that. Now I'm not saying Witless Protection is some kind of misunderstood or neglected classic; I'm not even going to claim it's a particularly good or even competent movie - because it most certainly isn't. But I did laugh throughout the film - thanks almost exclusively to the good will engendered by redneck comedian Larry the Cable Guy - so by the most basic definition of a "movie comedy," Witless Protection is minimally a "success" (albeit a very minor one). So...bring on the emails!
The story - what little there is - concerns Deputy Sheriff Larry Stalder (Larry the Cable Guy), a fat, hapless, but well-meaning dolt who dreams of leaving his small Southern town to become a full-fledged FBI agent. Spending his days either solving small-town problems like stopping farmer Bo (Will Clinger) from blasting his horse Buttercup for throwing him, or pissing away the hours in the local diner, cutting up with his friends while he waits for his girl Connie (Jenny McCarthy) to get off work, Larry dreams of bigger things with his tiny brain.
Opportunity knocks for Larry one day when into the diner comes Agent Ricardo Bodi (Yaphet Kotto) and his detail of FBI agents shepherding endangered witness Madeleine (Ivana Milicevic) back to Chicago for an important corruption trial. Larry, misreading the situation 100%, believes that Madeleine is being kidnapped by drug dealers, and gives chase once the group leaves the diner, eventually catching up to them and forcibly taking Madeleine away. Claiming that Agent Bodi is "dirty" (since he doesn't follow official FBI procedures that Larry has rigorously studied), Larry eventually convinces Madeleine that he's looking out for her, and that's she's in danger from Bodi, who's working with her boss and the subject of the corruption trial: multi-millionaire Arthur Grimsley (Peter Stormare). Now Larry has to dodge not only Bodi, but also Wilford Duvall (Eric Roberts - yes, that Eric Roberts), the head of Grimsley's private security detail.
What I found far more amusing than Witless Protection itself was the rather hysterical, unhinged vitriol that was launched against this silly little nothing when it first came out earlier this year. You would think, reading some of the reviews for the film, that Witless Protection and Larry the Cable Guy represented not only the imminent Decline of Western Civilization, but also (and I'm not making this up) a perceived threat to America, its values, and its ultimate well-being. Obviously, Larry's comedy isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea, but to call him a threat to the nation is...hysterically funny. What's not so amusing is the "elephant gun-in-service-of-killing-a-fly" technique that so many liberal-slanted writers and political pundits in the mainstream media employ en masse, anytime there's even the smallest dissenting voice from "the established line" of politically correct thought in the popular culture. What a bunch of Nervous Nellies everyone is today, when Larry the Cable makes a racist joke, and everyone predicts dire consequences for the youth of America.
What I think most of these critics fail to see is the self-awareness and irony of this type of humor. Not at all unlike ethnic humor from other groups, so-called "redneck" humor looks at cultural proclivities within its own group, and points out with equal admiration and comedic scorn the pluses and minuses of such behavior. Within Witless Protection is a constant stream of classic redneck comedy that references the low, bawdy, ignorant, rural Americana humor that's as culturally "legitimate" as a Borscht Belt tummler riffing on America's predominantly Christian society, or the likes of Richard Pryor or Dave Chappell raging against a predominantly white society. Let's not go overboard, though: Witless Protection is a mess, and certainly not anything significant in the way of socially conscious comedy. But it's interesting to see critics foam at the mouth when Larry the Cable Guy does the exact same thing with his brand of cultural humor, that they applaud in Mel Brooks' or Richard Pryor's work.
There's a scene in Witless Protection that was referenced by many critics who felt it somehow summed up the "unfairness" of Larry's type of comedy. Trying to get a hotel room for the night, Larry confronts the Middle-Eastern owner of the hotel, and basically insults him (at first unknowingly, and then directly), calling him a "pamperhead," before threatening to call Homeland Security if he can't pay for the room with U.S. greenbacks (the owner wants a credit card, which Larry doesn't want to use, lest he tips off Big Brother). If "pamperhead" is the worse example critics can find in Witless Protection of the imminent threat to American civility represented by "those people" down South, I would suggest far more productive fields of racist inquiry in the numerous films over the last thirty-five years or so where black actors and comedians have riffed on various insulting variations of the "up-tight whitey" stereotype (I don't remember any critics getting all hot and bothered over that cultural trend that insults a racial group with absolute impunity, free from pop culture retaliation). Watching that hotel scene, what many of the critics failed to notice (or deliberately withheld in their reviews), is the fact that it's deeply ironic. Both Connie and Omar think Larry is a total jerk, with Omar getting the biggest laugh in the scene - at Larry's expense - when he shakes his head in acknowledged, shared disgust with Connie when she demands separate beds. Larry comes off the worst in this scene, not Omar, with both liberals and conservatives being able to laugh at the scene's ultimate joke: the threat of a call to Homeland Security as the be-all, end-all solution to any problem - a theme further elaborated on in the truly disgusting airport sequence, where Larry is made to stand naked in front of security while he's utterly humiliated during a full cavity search. As always in Larry's comedy, the biggest offender is Larry - who pays for that offending by being the most humiliated in the end.
Ultimately, what's most offensive about Witless Protection, though, isn't its politics, but its general air of incompetence and waste. As anyone who's read my reviews will attest (all ten of you), I enjoy a good Shavian battle of sexual banter, or a Noel Coward turn-of-phrase witticism - but I also enjoy low-comedy slapstick and bathroom humor (as I suspect most of us do, whether we're willing to admit it or not). And individual bits and lines in Witless Protection satisfy those low-standards to a T. There is something undeniable funny about the overweight, unjustifiably confident Larry coming out of a hotel bathroom in Hawaiian print boxers and a too-tight wife-beater with the all the air and confidence of James Bond. On the dashboard of Larry's truck is a bumper-sticker that reads, "Often Wrong, Never in Doubt," which perfectly sums up his genial (and self-aware) character. When Larry shows up at the posh ball given by Grimsley and immediately announces, "Hey, you got a crapper? I gotta go pinch out a grumpy," I hit the floor. The infamous vomit scene is one of the better ones I've seen onscreen (the special effects are voluminous, with Larry topping the physical gag when he paws through the vomitus, exclaiming, "That was some good eatin' there."), while the "airport tanning" joke - only heard, not actually seen - is as funny as it is repulsive.
But Larry's facility with a barnyard witticism is fairly wasted in writer/director Charles Robert Carner's witless concoction. Far too much of Witless Protection just lays there, with the whisper-thin, ludicrously plotted story failing to make much sense. And while Larry's fine when given a good line, too many others in Witless Protection fall distressingly flat ("Are you insane?" No, I'm Larry." Lame). Sequences that promise all sorts of comic possibilities - the polo match, for instance - are incompetently set up and shot, with opportunities squandered to ratchet up the laughs. As for the supporting cast, it's difficult to give much credit to Jenny McCarthy (since she's barely in it) or Yaphet Kotto (sadly diminished here in an obvious take-off on his Midnight Run character) or Eric Roberts, for god's sake (a long, long way from Star 80 and The Pope of Greenwich Village), because they're used so carelessly here (although I must admit to enjoying Joe Mantegna's bizarre turn as Larry's twisted brother-in-law, Doc Savage). The main theme of Witless Protection is as old as the hills in terms of populist rural plotting - good-natured bumpkin, who turns out to be smarter than his big-city tormentors, rejects his long-held dream of working in the city to return to his small home town and his best girl - but that wouldn't have mattered in the slightest if the movie had been at least assured in its focus. As it stands, Witless Protection is a shapeless, formless assembly of good and bad jokes (with the good ones very good), which in the end, just makes you wish somebody else had been at the helm of the movie. Larry the Cable Guy has it - he just needs a director and writer who care enough to properly showcase it.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.