A quick search of IMDb.com shows that few actors have as much on their plates right now as Will Arnett. The rave reviews that heralded “Arrested Development” even into its premature cancellation have left the quirky gesture comedian (who played the self-promoting magician and perpetual screw-up Gob Bluth on the show) in high demand, although most of his projects so far have failed to take advantage of his considerable comedic instinct. The latest misstep, “Let’s Go to Prison,” is a attempt at satirical humor gone disastrously awry, despite the good intentions that seem to have gone into it.

Morgan Morel
Nice shoes. (Courtesy of Universal)

“Our justice system sucks,” declares John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard, “Employee of the Month”), the protagonist of “Prison” and self-proclaimed victim of that system. When he was eight, John tried to steal the Publisher’s Clearing House van, mistakenly thinking there would be money inside, and ever since his life has been a virtual carousel in and out of prison.

Once he’s finally out of lock-up, John looks immediately to taking revenge on the judge who ruined his life, Nelson Biederman III. But when he learns that the old judge is dead, John focuses his vengeance on his bratty son Nelson IV (Arnett), framing him for an armed robbery and ensuring himself a place in Nelson’s cell. In prison, the fresh-faced Nelson gets beat up, choked, stabbed and otherwise violated, much to John’s delight. But as Nelson grows accustomed to prison ways, he makes John angrier, leading to a final death match out on the yard.

Despite tasteless trailers and no screenings for critics, there isn’t anything overtly painful about the film.

Even with the many miscalculated gags and totally vapid writing, the film is not always unwatchable, but it fails in its persistent, desperate attempts at both humor and sentiment. We’re supposed to sympathize with John, and – considering that he’s been in trouble with the law since the tender age of 8 – you’d think that sympathy would be easily conjured. Instead, watching him spit in people’s coffee and shoot up phone booths – not to mention con an innocent man into prison – we’re left hating the supposedly tragic protagonist. That’s never a good sign.

And Nelson, though his innocence and childish demeanor is awkwardly out of place for most of the film, could be a character easily salvaged if he were just a little bit funny. Arnett brings his trademark smug vanity to the role, but in the absence of perceptive writing, his antics are forced and lame. The lesson here is that though Arnett played one of the funniest characters in recent TV history, his humor is a simply a product of the material at his disposal.

We all know by now of the “Seinfeld” curse, whereby the cast members who played some of the most memorable characters ever could find no success after the show ended. Arnett’s empty schtick in both “Prison” and his last effort “RV” indicates that the chances of a similar “Arrested Development” curse are strong. It’s possible that in his many upcoming roles, Arnett will find the writing to take his routine back into top form, but for the time being, his failures should help us appreciate even more the genius creation “Arrested Development” really was.

Star Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Let’s Go to Prison
At the Showcase and Quality 16

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