Viewers who are surprised by a scene late in Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys in which a cuckolded husband backhands his faithless wife so that she literally flies across a lunch counter and onto the floor just don’t know their Tyler Perry filmography. Domestic abuse in the name of revenge has been part of the Perry modus operandi since day one. Whether it’s vengeance-crazed Kimberley Elise propelling her wayward, wheelchair-bound husband headlong into a sunken bathtub in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) or Rochelle Aytes throwing a pot of boiling grits in her nasty hubby’s face in Madea’s Family Reunion (2006), it’s there, and it’s viewed as acceptable behavior. And it’s always designed to provoke a cheer from the audience.
This is no different—except it marks the first time Perry has worked to manipulate an audience into cheering at the sight of a man beating up a woman, thereby raising the bar of irresponsibility and obnoxiousness another rung. And oh my, does the unsubtle Mr. Perry work to elicit this response. In typical Perry manner, the buildup for this is in the making from the moment we first see the character in question. The minute this woman opens her mouth she’s the villainess from hell, and each subsequent scene is designed to arrive at a sense of (to put it crudely) “the bitch had it coming.” It’s all in the name of Family Values and Perry’s personal brand of religion.
The sad thing is that otherwise the movie is the closest Perry has come to making something that looks like it belongs on a movie screen and not on a TV set or on the wall of a church basement. No, the writing isn’t markedly improved from his previous works. The structure is terrible. Cheap melodrama is still his stock in trade. Characterization is crafted with a sledgehammer. And his messages are either mixed or simply dubious. But Family is more solid and slick than usual. It doesn’t feel utterly amateurish in the manner of Madea’s Family Reunion, nor does it succumb to the General Foods International Coffees commercial look as did Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? (2006). This actually looks like a real movie.
This is also a film where—however ineptly—Perry tries to branch out. Casting Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates was a good move. It would have been a better one if they’d been given something other than this improbable soap opera that manages to drag in mass infidelities, unlikely friendships, a plot device disguised as a miniature Thelma and Louise, a disease of the week and what can only be called a street-person-ex-machina. Even so, the two actresses do bestow a certain quality that’s new to Perry’s work.
OK, so casting the expressionless Cole Hauser (the poor man’s Josh Lucas, who in turn is the poor man’s Matthew McConaughey) wasn’t so smart, but Taraji P. Henson, KaDee Strickland and Robin Givens help make up for that. Poor Sanaa Lathan can do nothing with her cardboard villainess, while TV actor Rockmond Dunbar can do even less in the role of her terminally credulous husband. (Oh, you got that $286,000 as bonuses? OK, fine.) The less said about Perry himself in a silly wig as a construction worker the better.
No, Family isn’t good—though it will doubtless please Perry’s core following, if only by virtue of the attached trailer for the upcoming Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail—but the turns by its two stars raise it out of the muck, as do the production values. Now, if only Perry would get himself a co-writer, dump the domestic abuse and stop listening to those fans who keep telling him he’s a genius, he might make a really good movie. But this isn’t it. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, sexual references and brief violence.