In a shocking change of pace for Tyler Perry, "The Family That Preys" is, get this, a southern-fried melodrama, frosted with overbearing performances, low-budget production polish, and obscene displays of artistic and moral ineptness. It's nice see that Perry, in his fifth directorial effort, has decided to test himself with deeply challenging material, rising above his past transgressions, at last offering the screen a tightly wound story that speaks universal truths about the state of the human condition.
All kidding aside: "Preys" stinks.
Lifelong friends, Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard) and Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates) have enjoyed watching their children grow and their businesses flourish. When Charlotte's shifty son William (Cole Hauser) begins an extramarital affair with Alice's daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), the secret is impossible to cover, tearing up both families as the lies and manipulation start to pile up. With Charlotte and Alice trying to keep some sense of order, Andrea's clueless husband, Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), still hopes to solicit seed money for his construction business dreams from William, leaving Andrea's sister Pam (Taraji P. Henson) and her husband Ben (Tyler Perry) at a loss for words, observing the madness from the comfort of their stable marriage.
Unlike the rest of the Tyler Perry catalog, "Preys" is engineered to win over a large, crossover audience for the Georgian mogul. Not that the film doesn't have huge, wet Perry stamps all over it, but there's a new angle to "Preys" that Perry hasn't sampled before: the Caucasian experience.
Previous Perry pictures traditionally looked upon white people as comedic foils who were quick with a racist remark or nugget of high-society disgust. "Preys" gives us Charlotte, who doesn't approach her friendship with Alice through skin color, but through honest admiration and companionship. It's a superb change of pace for Perry, who resists nearly any opportunity to inject racial animosity into the picture. However, it's the last moment of invention the film will enjoy.
"Preys" is a soap opera in the most unashamed sense, and while this aesthetic has made Perry heaps of coin, his personal screen touch remains some of the worst overall filmmaking around. The new feature is perhaps even more melodramatic than anything that's come before, taking the Andrea/William affair and using it as the inspiration for the cast to arch their eyebrows to assured cramp, flare nostrils in unintentional comedic fury, and bounce impassioned lines of dialogue off each other with medicine ball grace. It's equal parts hilarious and aggravating, with Perry showing little shame as he works the characters into pants-wetting hysteria.
For "Preys," the action is actually split into two parts: the sticky infidelity web and Alice and Charlotte's you-go-girl road trip, where the two ladies take off in a vintage car and tour the southwest ("like Oprah and Gayle!"). The travelogue is Perry's weakest idea, taking the ladies on a booze-laden tour of bars and natural wonders, with the merriment jumping from male strip clubs all the way to blunt professions of early-onset Alzheimer's. Yes, I just wrote that. It wouldn't be Perry if the story didn't contain shameless, whiplash-inducing turns of pity that emerge from out of nowhere, leaving the audience in a complete lurch with little dramatic foundation to fall back on. Plus the road trip segment introduces what I would consider a true torture device: Kathy Bates in overact mode. Gulp.
The infidelity side of the "Preys" script is given far more attention, but in all the wrong ways. Here, the performances are a wreck, with Hauser emitting the sexual appeal of a cold sore as he struts around like a mannequin, refusing to move a facial muscle (a Hauser specialty). "Preys" also has Chris to kick around, and the dim-witted character is used solely as the film's punching bag, employed here to suffer the most humiliation and to carry out another Perry commandment: the justified moment of domestic abuse.
By having Chris punch Andrea (cue audience cheer) to release his cuckold frustrations, Perry crosses the line, endorsing violence on a level he's only flirted with before. It's sickening and completely irresponsible. In a film stuffed with bibles, baptisms, and gospels, to watch the movie celebrate spousal abuse is an unthinkable step even for Perry, who is more than willing to profit from his bottom-feeding template of pandering no matter how much it could influence his target demographic.
With enough double-crosses and tragic ends to make "Days of Our Lives" wince, "The Family That Preys" clearly demonstrates that even when Perry desires to climb out of his own genre, he lacks the skills and the patience to truly test himself. Instead, it's the same old dance, only now it involves slapping around women.
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