There have been a few movies that have succeeded in making a joke out of prison life–“Up the River” (1930), which was Spencer Tracy’s film debut and co-starred Humphrey Bogart; Laurel and Hardy’s “Pardon Us” (1931); Peter Sellers’ “Two-Way Stretch” (1960). Not a masterpiece among them, but all good fun. Even on the tube, there was an underrated series called “On the Rocks,” which lasted for a single season in the mid-seventies and earned some grins. (You could even toss “Hogan’s Heroes” in for good measure.) But rest assured that “Let’s Go To Prison” doesn’t join this select company.
Laxly directed by Bob Oderkirk, this is a decidedly dim-bulb farce that tries to play off every cliche of the prison genre but flubs each one. Dax Shepard stars as John Lyshitski (the surname signals the quality of humor on display here), a repeat offender out to take revenge on the judge who’s sent him to the slammer over and over again but is forced to target the jurist’s son instead after the dad dies. John frames the younger Nelson Biederman (Will Arnett) for a botched robbery, and then–to increase his pleasure–gets himself incarcerated in the same cell with him.
Nelson’s a self-centered jerk, played so overbearingly by Arnett–a specialist in sleazy scumbags (see “RV”)–that you don’t mind seeing him get played. And the laid-back Shepard is less offensive here than in former efforts like “Zathura” and “Employee of the Month,” in which he came on much too strong, even if his low-life narration is entirely too reminiscent of the running commentary that Jason Lee delivers in “My Name is Earl”–but without a similar quota of laughs. They’re hardly an inspired comedy team, though. And when a bevy of flatly-written supporting characters are added inside the walls, things really deteriorate. There’s Barry (Chi McBride, who should really be embarrassed), a tough black dude who has amorous eyes for Nelson. And Lybard (Michael Shannon), the head of the White Supremacist gang whom Nelson accidentally disses. And hard-nosed guard Shanahan (the ubiquitous David Koechner), who takes every opportunity to make a buck. And the warden (Dylan Baker, trying futilely to maintain his dignity), with the predictably weird sense of humor.
It would be a tedious job to untangle the ways in which all of them become involved in John’s schemes to humiliate Nelson, or how Nelson turns the tables, or how the two learn to work together in a time of mutual need. Suffice it to say that the big finale, which follows on a stream of dumb gags, many with a particularly odious gay subtext, is about as lame a business as you’re likely to see in a comedy this year. And as if that’s weren’t bad enough, a musical sequence that accompanies the final credits literally goes nowhere.
“Let’s Go to Prison” is obviously a poverty-row production, and looks it. It should have been titled “Let’s Go to DVD,” where it will clearly move with unbecoming alacrity, and where it will be much more at home. Though, one hopes, not yours.