Assessing the state of Tyler Perry’s filmmaking
Tyler Perry has become a brand, with his name affixed to the titles of his releases and a loyal following, but he has been constantly derided for pandering to his core audience with a lowest-common-denominator approach to issues of values and morality. His old-school Southern church revues began in live theater with broad stereotypes and call-and-response interplay between the performers onstage and the audience; these were reflections rarely seen on multiplex screens or even on television. Upstart studio Lionsgate – sensing an exclusive share of this niche market with little additional effort or expenditure on their part – teamed up with Perry, recognizing that his stage plays offered a potentially lucrative back catalogue comparable to a best-selling book franchise.
And here we are, over a decade in (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman” opened in 2002), with “Tyler Perry’s Temptation” (with the sometime subhead “Confession of a Marriage Counselor”) logging a routine $20 million-plus weekend at the box office. It is the first Perry project of 2013, with a production title on the horizon (“Peeples” from acolyte writer-director Tina Gordon Chism), another big screen vanity project “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” as well as “The Haves and the Have Nots,” a television series from the assembly line, but “Temptation” teases of a slight change in direction, a move towards a more sensual take on his tried and true focus on sin and redemption.
Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is a driven young college graduate from the South with an old-fashioned husband (Lance Gross) who was her childhood sweetheart. The couple left their home, traveled north and now Judith is trudging away at a private firm that specializes in setting up rich men with the trophy women they seem to believe they so richly deserve. It is soul draining for Judith, who longs to have her own private practice, until she meets billionaire dot-com guy Harley (Robbie Jones) and succumbs to the dark side of sex and power in relationships.
Trailers for the movie hint at all kinds of smoldering interplay between Judith and Harley that runs counter to the staid workman-like dynamic between Judith and her hubby, but truth be told, the marketable spice comes from the rather empty infusions of Kim Kardashian. It used to be that you couldn’t “trust a big butt and a smile,” and Kardashian is only half-cocked here – I’m not sure her face has been engineered for human expression. If this is all “Temptation” has to offer, then the Devil’s definitely beating a hasty retreat.
Intriguingly though, the movie speaks to the undeniable power of Perry as a force in the industry. Not only can he continue to get films made, he’s able to entice a full-spectrum of performers to sign on for these projects. Smollett-Bell – best remembered for “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Great Debaters” – is an attractive young star on the rise and now she’s got an appearance in a $20 million opener to add to her resume. The critical quality of the project barely matters in the numbers-driven game. Why should it? Perry’s in a position to continue tempting the likes of Eugene Levy and Denise Richards (“Madea’s Witness Protection”), Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington and Whoopi Goldberg (“For Colored Girls”) and Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates (“The Family That Preys”) into his efforts.
The attention is supposed to be on the movies and that’s where he earns the sub-par ratings from more discerning viewers. He’s learned enough about filmmaking that he’s no longer shooting as if the world is merely a stage, but he’s writing and coaxing performances aimed at the back row. The lack of subtlety is decidedly not very tempting for real film lovers.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com