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November 17, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | November 17, 2006 |

From its onset, Let’s Go to Prison has a markedly confused tone: Career criminal John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) informs us that the American penal system sucks; his prankish introduction to juvenile hall after stealing a Publisher’s Clearing House check actually turned him into a hardened criminal instead of rehabilitating him. His tricks in the joint have left him embittered toward the judge who sentenced him there over and over, and after his latest release he buys a gun and seeks revenge.

When his scheme is thwarted by the judge’s untimely death, Lyshitski targets the judge’s son, Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), a spoiled businessman and rampant douche. In what has to be the most convoluted and nonsensical revenge ploy, Lyshitski sets up and frames Biederman for a crime, oversees his conviction, then allows himself to be arrested just so he can be sent to the same clink as Biederman in order to further orchestrate his misery.

As predicted, Biederman fares poorly in the slammer, running afoul of the white supremacists on the first day and attracting the salacious attention of Barry (Chi McBride), a homoerotic thug. Lyshitski alternates between educating the hapless Biederman in prison mores and selling him out (literally, in the case of Barry). But after a rocky start, Biederman adapts to his new role and, after accidentally killing another inmate, becomes a prison hotshot.

In between these so-called comedic bouts of prison life, Shepard’s voiceover peppers the narrative with little factoids about the state of correctional facilities in the United States — there are 2 million individuals incarcerated today, costing untold millions in taxes every year. Lyshitski muses: “Wouldn’t it just be cheaper to let us keep your car stereos?” These little nuggets are actually a bit interesting, but have no real purpose in Let’s Go to Prison as devices of narrative or satire. The whole of the movie actually looks quite real, from the prison setting to some of its hardened inmates — none of it, however, coexists well with the oafish humor that director Bob Odenkirk is playing for.

Added to this mix is uneven casting. Frankly, the appeal of Dax Shepard is lost on me. The guy seems to be playing the same sarcastic jackass in every movie he’s in, but he looks so completely bored and uninterested in his own performance that the humor is lost. Only Chi McBride is mildly amusing as a goofy, lovestruck lout who’s intent on mansexing Biederman, but his brand of intentional comedy doesn’t work with Odenkirk’s flat direction either.

The tone of this film was confounding. Many of the gags seem to come right out of sitcoms, and yet the violence is not slapstick — one shiv sequence even borders on seriousness. Overall, Let’s Go to Prison can’t decide what it wants to be — black comedy, tame comedy, or cheeky exposé. What it is successful at is staggering blandness. Ironically, I was more interested in the machinations of the realistic prison setting than in any of the lame stabs at comedy. Too bad this movie preferred the latter.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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Let's Go to Prison / Phillip Stephens

Film | November 17, 2006 |

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