Although Tyler Perry’s sixth feature film is about two Atlanta clans, the title refers to the entire human race, which is appropriate since this prolix sermon transmits generic wisdom applicable to every person on Earth. That’s not to say the producer/writer/director/actor hasn’t infused the drama with his distinctively Southern, African-American and Christian outlook. It does mean that the zest-free effort moves along at the leisurely pace of a daytime soap and is universally soporific. Because The Family That Preys is so subdued and Perry no longer a fresh commodity—having churned out six movies and a TV sitcom in four years—don’t expect a big earner.
The story is anchored in the friendship of two matriarchs. Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates) is white, rich and the controlling shareholder of a prosperous construction company. Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard) is African-American, working-class and the owner of a diner called Wing & A Prayer. Alice sings in the choir, feeds homeless people and tries to keep the peace between her two squabbling daughters Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) and Pam (Taraji P. Henson). While married to Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), Andrea is having an affair with her boss William (Cole Hauser), Charlotte’s son. Oblivious Chris, whom Andrea treats with scorn, works construction for Cartwright Corporation but dreams of starting his own company. Perry himself plays Ben, Pam’s husband and Chris’ fellow grunt. The unhappy status quo is disrupted when Charlotte hires a sharp executive (Robin Givens) who exposes William’s boardroom and bedroom chicanery.
To say that the plot is laboriously constructed is an understatement. The first hour is interminable, filled with dead air that suggests Perry the director was asleep at the switch. The strained relations between these characters seeps into the filmmaking, with the business intrigue being the most clumsily handled. Perry only comes up with one memorable quip—about Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy —which brings to mind a more recent Morgan Freeman vehicle. The Family That Preys can be described as The Bucket List meets Dirty, Sexy Money south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Perry earnestly peddles his theme of carpe diem qualified by morality. Concerned as always with economic mobility and how it’s influenced by race and gender, he preaches that material comforts aren’t to be rejected but that money doesn’t ensure happiness and is no replacement for spiritual bonds. The message amounts to “live life to the hilt while respecting others” and is captured in the song “I Hope You Dance” (heard in two versions performed by Lee Ann Womack and Gladys Knight) with the refrain “give faith a fighting chance.”
As a screenwriter, Perry relishes bringing selfish characters down a few pegs. He gives his unlikable and unrepentant creations their comeuppance but never closes the door on them entirely. And while he’s more adept at creating female characters, he has a tendency to divide women into the saintly and the shrill—even the same woman. Charlotte is a nasty mother and tough businessperson, but also a pleasure-seeking, live-for-the-moment free spirit when she’s with her pal Alice. Bates and Woodard are allowed to cut loose on a cross-country road-trip in an old convertible. This journey, really the only stretch of the movie with any energy, features stops in a honky-tonk cowboy bar and a male strip club, much to faithful Alice’s dismay. Yet she gets Charlotte back with an impromptu baptismal dunking in a pond.
Otherwise, Perry’s broad sense of humor—namely, the outrageous antics of his signature creation Madea—is missing from The Family That Preys. Bereft fans will sing hallelujahs upon learning Madea will be back in the spring of 2009 when Perry’s next movie Madea Goes to Jail is released.
Cast: Alfre Woodard, Sanaa Lathan, Rockmond Dunbar, KaDee Strickland, Cole Hauser, Taraji P. Henson, Robin Givens, Tyler Perry and Kathy Bates
Director/Screenwriter: Tyler Perry
Producers: Tyler Perry and Reuben Cannon
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, sexual references, and brief violence
Running time: 111 min.
Release date: September 12