The Snob went to see Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys," for free, as a guest of a friend. She went with an open mind and that mind was so dulled that it couldn't cut through Perry's horrid dialog, shoddy stagecraft and hysterical directing.
I didn't have high hopes, but I didn't expect what I got.
When I read how others saw this film I wonder if they were grading on a curve. Or maybe his previous films were so poorly executed that by comparison this one was brilliant. But I do know this:
I've watched a lot of black films, many which barely passed as "entertainment." They were what they were, imperfect comedy vessels produced by hacks, but hacks who understood film, if only on a hackery level.
Perry is not good enough to be called a hack.
Compared the producers and directors of such high black cinema as "Juwanna Man," "Two Can Play This Game," "Waiting to Exhale" and both "Barbershop" films, Perry doesn't even come close. To say he is a hack would be to assume that he understood the most basic, crudest elements of filmmaking on a budget.
And from what I saw Saturday morning, this man does not.
Words cannot describe how much I didn't like "The Family That Preys." (Although this review comes close.) The corny, hackneyed mish mash of "Days of Our Lives" and "Soul Food" for a plot could be forgiven. The sickly sweet use of the Lee Ann Womack's relatively recent country classic "I Hope You Dance" could be forgiven. Forcing poor Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates to go through lines as subtle as a hand grenade. I can even forgive making Rockmond Dunbar's character the dumbest cuckolded man in the history of cuckolds. But I cannot forgive the fact that Perry either does not or refuses to learn the basic elements of filmmaking.
[SPOILER ALERT! If you actually want to be "surprised" by Perry's been-there-done-that plot, please stop reading. But if you watch this film and can't see what's going to happen from a mile out, you obviously don't consume much fiction, whether as a book, TV show, film, music or long form poem.]
Show, don't tell: This was the greatest sin of the whole movie. There's a wedding at the beginning that you never see take place. There is an affair that you never learn any of the "good" parts of -- like the seduction, the courtship, the illicit meetings, any allusions of sex or intimacy between those two characters, allusions of any love or lust between the two. All parts of the affair are learned through a list of talking points uttered by various characters throughout the film.
There's two "children," one per each cheater. One child you only see via the back of his head and the other is invisible, despite both being mentioned. The history of the friendship between Woodard and Bates' characters is verbally mentioned, but not shown. Potential for the examination of class/race issues are offered up but never probed. Woodard takes Bates to an impromptu Baptism when there was no lead-up explaining why Bates would want to be Baptized. There are no conversations between the two about life and death, the existence of God or who Jesus Christ is. Just a Baptism out of nothingness, never touched upon, referenced or explained ever again.
And rather than show through better filmmaking why Sanaa Lathan's character is such a gigantic bitch or why she is obsessed with money, there are jibs and jabs from her sister (who comes off almost equally as bitchy), regular references to luxury items and finally, a blurted out half-assed excuse/motivation for Lathan's nuttiness when she barks at her mother for driving their father away who apparently abandoned them. This is the first and only reference to the man and how his actions affected their family.
Attack of the two dimensional character: There were only two types of characters in this movie -- the good, salt of the earth, working class-to-poor people and the evil, college educated, stuck up rich people.
Does Cole Hauser's William Cartwright have any motivation to cheat on his wife that we know of? No. Do we find out the nature of his marriage? No. Do we learn why he and his mother have such a frigid relationship? No. Do we find out why he loves or does not love his wife or Lathan's character? No. Do we find out why he chose to carry on a years long affair with Lathan's character? No. Do we find out if he had a relationship with Lathan's character's "son" (who Perry -- shock, shock -- outs as Cartwright's son? No. He's just evil.
The same goes for Lathan who is a cold, calculating and cackling witch with no explanation. She also turns into an immature, nonsensical woman who doesn't act anything like a tough, hardworking woman who managed to pull herself up out of poverty and earn an Ivy League education. We don't learn that she had any love for Cartwright until shortly after the film's climax. I'd assumed she was playing him for the money given how "evil" she was, but she tearfully blurts out the most trite and cliched, "He loves me. He's going to leave his wife and marry meeeeee!" bullshit that is even below "The Young and The Restless" standards.
The "good" characters are just as awful. Dunbar's "Mr. Cuckold" is the stupidest wronged spouse in the history of wronged spouses. He is written as so weak and so witless he defies belief. When he learns his wife has a separate account with more than $280,000 in it and asks her about it, she castrates him telling him he has no business looking at her money and that she gets the cash from "bonuses."
She also has a "bonus" car given to her by the company and a "bonus" house, also from the company.
Yet, Dunbar's character doesn't figure it all out until the very end where he uncharacteristically slaps Lathan so hard that she flies over a diner counter top. While this got a lot of laughs from the audience, no doubt under the guise of "she had it coming," I was still disturbed as it wasn't necessary and gives the impression that there is a justification to physically assault another person, especially a woman, if she had it coming.
Wildly gesticulating caricatures: Perry does not understand how you can't direct actors for film the same way you'd direct actors for stage. Too often he has instructed his talented actors to "overact," as you would do for a stage play. On the stage you have to make wider gestures to fill the open theater void. Film is an intimate medium. Actors have to dial back so the dialog and interactions seem real. But the actors weren't dialed back, so they all sounded like cartoons, especially with such unimaginative dialog.
Repetitiveness: Apparently Perry was worried I wouldn't get a few points, so he had his characters repeat them over and over. For Lathan, "I get bonuses!" From every character to Dunbar about his dream of his own construction company some variation of," You need to get your head out of the clouds and be thankful for what you have!" Everyone except Woodard's character, "I need a drink." Having a fresh from work (and two fresh from cheating) threesome return home needing a shower almost immediately. Largely because Lathan and Hauser's characters, hint, hint, wink, wink, did the nasty that day. Perry's character just needed a shower because he was funky from work.
Perry is a lazy screenwriter: I could go all day naming plot devices that did not work or make sense, but if I had to pick one, the most maddening would be how Dunbar's character finds out about the secret account flushed with cash. He learns of it from a bank teller while trying to make a withdrawal. By this point, he and Lathan have been married for four years. The teller asks him which account and he is confused, asking the teller where the extra account came from and what is in it.
How dumb is Lathan's character if she didn't have the presence of mind to open her "secret" account at a different bank? Or if she had to have it at that bank, why would she have her husband's name listed on it? Because that's the only way the teller would say "which account." Because he gave his name only accounts with his name should have come up. Plus, this undercuts the fact that they've already been married for four years and we are to assume that he has never gone into the bank to make a transaction not once when his name is on his wife's secret account.
What the hell, people: Out of all these things I've mentioned, I guess my biggest disappointment was with the audience.
I don't have a problem in people liking and enjoying Perry's stage plays and films, but let's not fool ourselves. This is some piss poor film-making and everyone in that audience should have known it. THESE are the same people who saw "Dreamgirls," who watch "CSI: Miami," who read "Waiting to Exhale" and whose favorite films are "The Color Purple," "The Best Man" and "Bad Boys II." These are people who have seen both excellent cinema and some of Hollywood's finest hackery, yet they applaud something they have to know is a vastly inferior product when compared to "CB4," "Hitch" or "New Jack City."
I can understand why someone would love "Beauty Shop," the boring sequel to the "Barbershop" films, or "Glitter," that "A Star Is Born While a DJ Saved My Life" nightmare by Mariah Carey because as bad as those movies were the people making them understood the basic elements of filmmaking. That way, you could focus on the REAL problems of the film. Not get stuck on elementals you should have learned in either film school or via virtual film school -- a la Quintin Tarantino, a cinephile who consumed mass amounts of movies as he taught himself the craft.
I mourn what could have been -- a watchable melodrama on the subjects of marriage and infidelity featuring black performers.
Seeing actors I like (Rockmond Dunbar, Alfre Woodard, Kathy Bates) and love (Sanaa Lathan, Cole Hauser) wasted in a work undeserving of their talent drove me mad. To have an affair movie with no dramatization of the affair was ridiculous. I wasn't expecting a dry humping sex scene, but would it have killed him to shoot some passionate kissing, a fall on a bed and a fade to black? Give me the seduction. Give me the thickness of the drama. I want to understand what makes a marriage breakdown. By the end of the film, I learned nothing about commitment, family, love or loss that I couldn't find in a fortune cookie.
I realize this film was supposed to be some sort of departure for Perry, going with a biracial cast of characters with a grab for serious drama. But he really demonstrated his limitations as a director and it's hard to "cross-over" when you know that you can't screen your films for critics. And this is likely because Lion's Gate, which put out this film, knows it wouldn't even fly as a film student's freshman experiment. They know Perry can't direct and don't care, because they know black people who know his films are overacted with lots of shortcomings, love Perry anyway and focus on the good more so than the crappy.
So I applaud Perry for his ability to sell his vaudeville to a black movie-watching public who is willing to forgive his egregious sins of cinema because they are so starved of visions of us on screen. So starved that they are willing to pretend like "The Family That Preys" is "Unfaithful" meets "In Living Single" when it's really neither.
It seems I am too big of a snob for Tyler Perry films. My desire for the film fundamentals of A + B = Basic Filmmaking to be met are so strong that not even the power of blackness can override it.