by HELEN GEIB
Today I ventured outside my cultural comfort zone and went to see the latest film by one man entertainment juggernaut Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys. Although the film was listed on the theater marquee as “Tyler Perry,” my request for a ticket to “The Family That Preys” was met with a blank stare, and Perry wrote the screenplay and directed, Family is not typical of Perry’s body of work, and perhaps for that reason not a fair test of his ability to connect with his audience. While he does appear in the film, he has modest screen time playing a man who looks like Tyler Perry dressed as an ordinary construction worker. I thus remain familiar with his insanely popular “Madea” character only by repute and the evidence of the teaser trailer for Madea Goes to Jail, which I can now inform you is set to open in Spring of ’09.
The “family that preys” is Charlotte Wainwright (Kathy Bates), her son William (Cole Hauser), and William’s wife Jillian (KaDee Strickland). The family that is preyed upon, sort of, is Alice (Alfre Woodard), daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) and her husband Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), and daughter Pam (Taraji P. Henson) and her husband Ben (Perry). Robin Givens rounds out the large principal cast as Abby, chief operating officer of the Wainwright’s construction firm.
The film has even more narrative strands than cast members. Charlotte and Alice, best friends for 30 years, take a cross country road trip in a classic convertible. Charlotte and William are constantly going for each other’s jugulars. William and Andrea are having an affair. Construction worker Chris wants to start his own construction company, but Andrea doesn’t support him. Charlotte despises Jillian and Jillian is intimidated by Charlotte. Andrea and Pam loathe each other. William wants to wrest control of the company from Charlotte. Charlotte’s odd behavior screams terminal illness. Abby excoriates Andrea for giving “sisters” everywhere a bad name. Pam thinks Ben should be more ambitious and Ben thinks the couple should concentrate on fiscal prudence, putting a tiny strain on their marriage. Alice owns a diner, gives free meals to a former customer who fell on hard times and became homeless, sings in her church’s choir, and tries to mediate between her daughters.
As the foregoing paragraph suggests, Family is like a season long primetime television soap opera condensed to just under a two hour running time. It has the visual aesthetic to match, yet despite its over-abundance of storylines, a plodding pace. To call the characterizations one-dimensional is practically generous. The characters are, almost without exception, wholly static and lifeless. Characters’ backgrounds and relationships are sketched in a cursory fashion and there is no character development. It is especially lamentable to see the highly talented and gorgeous Lathan stuck with the one-note Andrea, who is never allowed to be more than a shrill harpy.
The minor exception to this dreary verdict is the Charlotte and Alice pairing. In stark contrast to the rest of the characters, Charlotte and Alice show a faint and limited approximation of life. Despite the hoary filmic contrivance of the bonding road trip, in their scenes together Bates and Woodard manage to suggest women who are close friends of long standing. If Family had focused wholeheartedly on making its points through the medium of the older women’s friendship, it might have had some dramatic value.
As I was watching the film, I attempted to distract myself from my boredom by speculating about why Perry made this film. The most likely answer that occurred to me is that it gave him a chance to deliver Madea’s homespun wisdom by proxy. Much of Alice’s dialogue consists of faith-based aphorisms and as the pathetic and unpleasant Andrea’s life unravels, the film is punctuated by a series of mini-sermons by Alice, Pam, and Abby.
The sermons elicited cheers from a group of women in the audience. The cheering was especially loud after Chris delivered a backhanded blow to Andrea’s face that literally knocked her up and over a piece of furniture before she hit the floor hard. The enthusiastic audience response was even more disturbing than Alice and Pam’s complaisance as witnesses. On the basis of the rest of the film, I think that Perry did not intend to elicit applause with that scene. I offer up this anecdote as further evidence of the utter ineptitude of the film’s writing and direction.