Let’s Go to Prison

Universal’s decision not to show “Let’s Go to Prison” to critics is a little puzzling, considering the movies they have screened that were far, far worse. “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” for example. Now THERE’S a bad movie. “Let’s Go to Prison”? Eh. It has laughs, it has some cleverness, and it has a lot of problems. But it’s not “bad,” exactly. “Dysfunctional” is more like it.

It’s based loosely on “You Are Going to Prison,” a 1994 non-fiction book written by several inmates under the collective pen name Jim Hogshire in which they give practical, realistic advice about what prison is like. The movie, adapted by “Reno 911” performers Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant and “Reno 911” director Michael Patrick Jann, incorporates some of the book’s sobering facts early on — it costs $54 a day to keep a man in prison; there are more than 2 million people in American prisons — then loses interest and gets back to its primary task, which is to tell a ludicrous and juvenile story and make jokes about male rape.

Our, um, “hero” is John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard), a dirtbag repeat offender recently released from prison who tells us, “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been in prison, I’d have 15 cents.” He blames the judge for all three of his incarcerations (despite his being guilty every time) and wants revenge on him. Alas, the judge is dead now, so John turns his attention to the old man’s son: Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett).

Nelson is an arrogant, oblivious jerk, not far removed from the character Arnett played on “Arrested Development.” He winds up in prison over a misunderstanding and John sees his opportunity: He’ll get himself thrown back into prison so he can torment Nelson personally.

No, I don’t know why anyone would do that, either. Just go with it.

It is not a particularly well-constructed movie, plot-wise. John’s whole point in getting himself arrested again is to make Nelson miserable in prison, yet he doesn’t do much in the furtherance of that goal once he arrives and arranges to be Nelson’s cellmate. Instead, he grows frustrated as the prissy, soft Nelson, through no fault of his own, comes to be top dog in the cellblock and actually adjusts to prison life.

Shepard and Arnett are moderately funny as the leads, but Chi McBride steals the show as Nelson’s wooer, Barry. Evidently deciding it’s funnier to see a man seduced in prison than to see him raped (and I guess I’d have to agree), the film presents Barry as a suave, Barry White-style lover who wants to win Nelson’s affection with romance and tenderness rather than force. The thread is so insane — he’s not just a one-scene, one-joke character, but an integral part of the plot — that it’s hard not to laugh at the sheer weirdness of it.

The director is Bob Odenkirk, half of the brilliant “Mr. Show” team and a funny writer and performer in his own right. (He has a small role here as Nelson’s ineffectual lawyer.) He has only a little experience in the director’s chair, though (this is his first wide-release feature), and the film suffers from inelegant pacing, and from violence that’s a bit stronger than you’d expect in a raucous comedy. It’s a dark, strange comedy that should probably be funnier than it is. But then, who ever said prison was going to be funny?

C+ (1 hr., 24 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity and vulgarity, some shower nudity, a lot of fistfighting and some other violence.)