I Saw A Tyler Perry Film and Didn’t Walk Out In the First 15 Minutes … But Not Because I Didn’t Want To

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.

Try harder.

67 thoughts on “I Saw A Tyler Perry Film and Didn’t Walk Out In the First 15 Minutes … But Not Because I Didn’t Want To

  1. I liked Why did I get Married and Diary of a Mad Black Woman that’s about it. What I do love about Tyler Perry is how he has come from nothing to become a hugh media star. He has a specific audience for his films just like slasher films and those scary movie films.

  2. I saw the movie on Saturday. I have never seen a TP movie at a theater though I’ve seen several of the stage-plays-to-video/dvd productions. In this movie–the slap was totally out of place (and shockingly unnecessary to me).HOWEVER–should you compare the TP pov to his determination to be ‘all that he can be’, THINK AESOP’S FABLES. Fables are used as proverbs to teach moral lessons.We need those lessons to cope in a world that de-values our work and our worth in westernized cultures.It seems that in the balance–working black actors, reasonable appropriate lessons taught/learned by folk who may be nutured, and nuturing deficient, TP’s appeal attempts to bridge a morality gap that results when family stories are not passed down from family elders around the dinner table. Broken families appear less able to pass on moral tales of goal setting, and working through hardships and pain. Learning, most times happens because of repeated reinforcement (good and bad). If the lessons are TP’s (except for the SLAP in this one) and he reaches the audience that supports him, what’s the real gripe?TP films do attempt to encourage treating others the way you want to be treated (rather than treating others the way you have been treated) along with visually portraying that personal decisions do indeed sometimes have heartbreaking consequences. Courage to do what’s good for you and others is reflected in this film.TP has successfully worked himself into a position to encourage others (not self-taught?) to follow his path–is ‘critical acclaim’ the real prize?

  3. I have a friend who worked on this movie in such a capacity (I won’t say which capacity -because homeboy’s gonna need a job in a couple of months or so and Perry constantly has money thrown at him for these “movies”- and I don’t want any rabid Perry fans to find this comment and make it hard for my friend. Anyhoodle) that he was able to observe Mr. Perry’s directorial style which was: A. Spend hours with your “trainer” in your trailer leaving the actors on set (along with everyone else, lights, set, cinematographer etc.) to fend for themselves.B. Kvetch about how you’d rather be doing something else and cut necessary days off of the schedule causing everyone around you (actually making the “movie”) to have to rush to get things done.C. Complain about how much you hate having to be Medea and spend your limited time on the set sulking about this.

  4. The plays do nothing for me, however I did like “why did I get married” it was different for him and is addressing a nitch of films that is missing. One that I have not seen since LOVE JONES. However, I did find the lack of background a diffinate minus in his new movie to help the plot and feelings along…there was a lot of why’s missing. Hopefuly he will get better with time – rememebr it took Spike a while too

  5. I have a friend who met Angela Bassett shortly after she made Meet The Browns and she told him in private that working on the film was the WORSE experience she had ever had in her career. That Perry is completely clueless when it comes to directing or even just handling actors.But then of course she couldn’t say that in public when she was promoting the movie. But then again, she’s a 50 year old black actress in Hollywood which means it’s stuggle to get a role, let alone a lead roles.But here’s a question. Perry, as you know, has a small cameo in the new Star Trek film coming out in May 2009. So here’s the question, when he was on the set didn’t it inspire him to stretch out and try something different? I’m not saying that he should have gone and made some $150 million sci-fi movie, but something different? He definitely has enough money to make the film on his own. Or was he just grateful that some white people took notice of him (which I have read he craves more than anything) and put him in a big Hollywood movie. Evidently the latter since his next film is Medea Goes to Jail. Looks like his Star Trek experience has no effect on him at all.But being a filmmaker means that you have to challenge yourself. Every filmmaker who calls himself a filmmaker does that whether it’s Spike Lee, Scorsese, Spielberg or a hack like Ron Howard. They’re always pushing themselves challenging themselves. Even Hitchock tried his hand at musicals, romantic comedies and period dramas during his directing career before sticking with suspense thrillers which he was a master at. Now it doesn’t mean that you will succeed all the time but to push your talent and your vision is something you do as a filmmaker. And I’m really disturbed by these people who have posted defending Perry saying that they like his movies. They’re basically saying that black people are too stupid to know when something is bad

  6. Its ashame that black talented folks like Angela Basett and Alfre Woodward have to be in TP to remain relevant.I am tired of TP always making college educated black women out to be the enemy and fat black women to be angels of the black community. He is a homosexual who hates women.

  7. I must say you are a bigger person than me. I haven’t seen any one of his films, TV shows or plays. I never will. This is why I refuse to read Ebony and Jet magazines. I won’t support bad art or journalism because it is produced by black people. There are engaging and entertaining works done by and for what I call IBPs (Intellectual Brown People). My Latino friends show write a similar review of the upcoming Beverly Hills Chuwawa (sp). I like your review and your blog a lot.

  8. We need to be more supportive of our own (black people) because no one is perfect; it’s ok to criticize because we criticize ourselves. Personally, I do not think that Tyler Perry’s movies are preachy; I feel it is something we need to hear from time to time. If you don’t like his movies that’s fine and if you do like them that’s ok too.Honestly, if you hate something so much..STOP talking about it or change it or move the hell on. There are more serious things going on, then Tyler Perry’s movies.P.S. I support black people trying to do something positive. Yes, Tyler needs to better his screen writing skills but WE ALL HAVE FLAWS.

  9. Haha… I don’t know which is more humorous – the content of your critique of the film, or the fact that you actually took the time to write such an extensive review!Just think of Tyler Perry as a kind of post-modern avant-gardist; he is reinventing cinema; a contemporary non-narrative filmmaker like Deren or Brakhage. Watch the film through those lenses and you’ll gain an entirely fresh perspective of it!All jokes aside… surely, this isn’t the first Tyler Perry movie you’ve seen. I long ago learned to accept the man and his works for what they are, and expect nothing more from him. It keeps the stress levels at bay. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, as long as there’s an audience that appreciates what he does.He’s the equivalent of those airport novels that I often see people buy and read from cover-to-cover during their 2-hour flights from New York to Chicago.Also, keep in mind that, to his audience, he’s not just a filmmaker, hence, his abilities as a filmmaker are irrelevant. The man is practically an institution! For his audience, his films are more than just 120 minutes of escapism, they are events – like Sunday service. They could care less about direction, acting, cinematography, etc, etc, etc… He transcends technique, and thus can do no wrong. And I say all this, not in jest.It’s also worth acknowledging the dearth of “black films” in circulation (regardless of quality), especially those that enjoy theatrical releases on a mass scale. So, those few black filmmakers with some clout get scrutinized maybe more than necessary, because there isn’t much else to contrast. If Tyler Perry was one out of a few dozen or more prominent, working black filmmakers, producing a wealth and variety of “black films,” he’d demand a lot less attention from those of us who care less for his material.Alas, the opposite if true, so… here we are.

  10. Wow, that was a scathing review! I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry film, so I can’t really comment on his skill, but I have to say this: in films I don’t think we need to be supplied with reasons. People choose to do things. That’s that. They make their choice regardless of the reasons, and I suppose Perry was more interested in investigating the consequences of such choices. Maybe he’s more interested in the future than the past. I don’t know… If the film really is that bad, I hope he makes better ones in future.

  11. In the spirit of being informed before fully criticizing, I whiteknuckled it and sat through 1 1/2 hrs of “House of Payne”. To call that bit of hackery putrid would be an insult to all putrification. I get that TP is the Spaghetti-Os of filmmakers – nothing of quality but tasty to the unformed palate. As long as black folks are enthusiastically willing to buy and suck down Spaghetti-Os, there is no need to serve up the five star pasta. As a film AND movie watcher, I have no problem with movies so bad they’re good. I can get behind irony. But I refuse to waste my limited eyeball time on crap.Apropos of this discussion, Snob (I don’t know if you’ve touched on this subject) but this illustrates the black class divide. The “real” black folks are those who are humble, god-fearing, working class, around-the-way negroes with good values. If they do make money, it’s through hustling. College educated, high-income blacks (esp women) are protrayed as selfish, wannabe white, bad people who’ve “forgotten where they come from”.With the majority (76%) of black people middle and upperclass, when did we decide the lower 24% represent what is authentically black?Bourgiestan

  12. Hi Danielle,I’d like to call to the attention of your readers, an excellent article about TYLER PERRY, by Margena A Christian in the current 10/08 issue of EBONY. Their money will be well spent, because Ms. Christian’s well documented story on the LAST DAYS OF IKE TURNER, is contained in the same issue! I’ve seen three Tyler Perry movies which I liked IMMENSELY! They are “Diary of A Mad Black Woman” (2005) “Madea’s Family Reunion” (2006) and “Woman Thou Art Loosed” (2005) the TD Jakes book for which he wrote the screenplay.The Diary of A Mad Black Woman, starring my favorite actress Kimberly Elyse, is about overcoming domestic violence Madea’s Family Reunion is about two cousins, Lisa Arindell Anderson and Rochelle Aytes, with shot gun toting Madea’s help, separately overcoming their child sexual abuse and domestic violence These two movies are so well produced, and the stories so well written, yes well written, with cameo appearances by Maya Angelou and Cecily Tyson, that the audience leaves the theater happy and uplifted, just like brother Obenson says, as if from a Sunday service.How many movies about domestic violence and incest can you name, where the audience leaves happy and uplifted?Margena A Christian, in her two articles for Ebony 10/08, tells us that BOTH Tyler Perry and Ike Turner were sexually abused as children. She includes a picture of Perry as a child. He had the same big head and lovable smile that he does today.It is to his credit that Perry was able to overcome his anger, and use his traumatic experience for good – producing educational, inspiring and even funny movies! Perry has even made up with his father the abuser- Emmitt R. Perry, and they are building upscale new homes together, and I’ve never heard about Tyler Perryeven in his Madea character beating up anybody!It is to his credit that he did not become a drug addict and batterer the way Ike Turner did!There is one more thing I’d like to say. Perry does many things well the way you do Danielle. You draw cartoons, you are an expert in fashion, and you write just as well about gossip /celebrities as you do politics and straight news. That’s at least four or five regular jobs right there,You publish the BEST Black women’s blog on the internet, and Tyler Perry who also started off by doing does every thing himself, has just opened (can you believe it) the ONLY Black owned movie studio in the US! Apparently not even Spike Lee has his own production studio!May I suggest that you watch two of Tyler Perry’s best movies, to put yourself in an appreciative frame of mind, and then find ways to JOIN Tyler Perry in making his work better, as one self made multi-talented person to another!Best Wishes,

  13. I guess the only thing I don’t agree with in your anaysis is “Perry is a lazy screenwriter.” I actually think it would take some effort to write so poorly. Im my eyes, Perry is a genius. I’m just mad I didn’t come up with his master plan first. Simple writing + Jesus + bad wig = $$.

  14. Thank goodmess more people are realizing how powerful it is to find your own audience. Tyler Perry has built an empire by catering to a particualr group of fans. There are so many great opportunities available for screenwriters and with just a little web surfing, they are easy to find. When trying to perfect a screenplay (if that’s even possible) it’s invaluable to have feedback on your script instead of just working in a vacuum. For those just starting out, that can be a tough thing to find. There are some film schools that offer such services. One that I found is Film Connection. http://www.film-connection.com/screenwriting_sub.html They offer one on one mentoring and their coure is available all over the US and Canada.

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