Minor spoilers to follow.
Tyler Perry's Temptation is the kind of over-the-top drama that leaves you speechless as the credits abruptly begin to roll. Perry doesn't bother trying to cloak his morality tale with details like fully developed characters or insightful dialogue or logic. The heartbreaking story of Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is introduced by her marriage counselor sister as a warning to all young married woman who have their eyes on someone else. Judith was once a happily married woman who was led into temptation by an intense, rich man who promised to appreciate her in all the ways her husband didn't. Sounds fairly standard, right? Well… no.
Judith works as a therapist for a matchmaking service owned by Janice (Vanessa Williams), a glamorous older woman with a French accent who may or may not be running escorts on the side. Her coworker Ava is played by Kim Kardashian, a true feat of stunt casting that's only made all the more impressive by her inability to inject the slightest bit of emotion into her steady stream of insults. Judith has designs on starting her own practice as a marriage counselor but her husband Brice (Lance Gross) wants to wait until they get more settled. Her frustration comes into full flower soon after a young social media exec comes in to the office to strike up a deal with Janice. Harley (Robbie Jones) begins coming on to Judith almost immediately. At first, she finds it easy to resist. Brice is the only man she's ever been with — a detail that Harley finds amazing — and he's a good man, a sensible guy, and it probably doesn't hurt that he looks like a finely chiseled Greek god. But those perfect oblique muscles will only get him so far: after Brice forgets her birthday for the second year in a row and rejects her advances one night when she wants to get frisky in the kitchen, Harley starts looking a whole lot better.
A large chunk of the movie is spent on a somewhat boring back-and-forth between Harley and Judith, with some extraordinarily strange asides tossed in. For instance, singer and actress Brandy plays Brice's coworker Karen, a haunted young woman who's on the run from an abusive ex. (Did I mention Brice is an incredibly handsome pharmacist?) Their other coworker is an older woman who can be counted on to say something crazy about Valium or lesbians at any given time. You could get whiplash from how quickly the tone goes from comedy to high drama, but at some point the drama transmogrifies into sheer absurdity with a very nasty undertone.
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As you'd guess from the title, religion is a strong theme here, which is par for the course in Perry's films. It's very much a tale of good versus evil, and Perry is an Old Testament-style deity raining hellfire and brimstone down on his characters. It's not enough that they might be unhappy or heartbroken or full of regret, but they must pay dearly and cruelly. At the same time, religion is subject to the movie's tonal whims as well. Judith's mother Sarah (Ella Joyce) is a religious woman who raised her daughter in the church, but by the end of the movie, I wouldn't have been totally surprised to see her try to perform a full-on exorcism.
Besides the rather sadistic treatment of its characters, Temptation has an incredibly troubling scene that kicks off the last third of the movie, when things get really dark and mean. Judith and Harley are returning from a business trip to New Orleans on Harley's private jet. Judith got a makeover before she left (with help from Ava, naturally) and has been partaking of the many adult beverages NOLA has to offer. The flirting gets pretty steamy between them, but when Harley goes to touch and kiss her, she tries to stop him. She tells him no repeatedly and loudly and physically tries to defend herself. "Now you can say you resisted," he tells her, and the scene fades into some sort of embrace. Later, Judith is shell-shocked and tells Harley she never wants to see him again. She goes to take a shower but stops to stare into the foggy mirror. She reflects back on the scene on the plane, but it's… a love scene? Really? I don't even know how to untangle this. There are so many ways to interpret this chain of events, and none of them are acceptable. Any sort of goodwill or patience I'd had for Temptation and its bizarro world disappeared with a poof.
Temptation is worth watching in the same way a movie like Nicholas Sparks' Safe Haven is worth watching: it's such an audaciously ridiculous movie that you have to see it for yourself.
[Photo Credit: KC Bailey/Lionsgate]
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Actor-director-mogul Tyler Perry didn’t come to preside over a vast media empire by paying much heed to the tastes of critics. His 10 feature-film releases to date – churned out over an eight-year span – have drawn mostly jeers from reviewers with his Madea comedies starring Perry in drag as a tough-talking southern matriarch singled out for special scorn. His latest effort the romantic drama Good Deeds isn’t likely to change many minds but it’s not for lack of effort from co-star Thandie Newton whose performance a struggling single mother stands out amidst the film’s otherwise crudely wrought melodrama.
Trading his Madea getup for the less-familiar guise of a leading man Perry stars as Wesley Deeds the scion of a wealthy family and whose lofty expectations have begun to wear on him. Beneath his sheen of polished affluence exists a man who draws little satisfaction from running Deeds Inc. the software giant his father built and who tires of shouldering the demands of his overbearing mother (Phylicia Rashad) the burden of his bellicose and oft-intoxicated bother (Brian White) and the monotony of his loveless engagement to his similarly well-bred fiancé Natalie (Gabrielle Union).
Trapped in a stultifying routine seemingly mapped out for him at birth Wesley longs to escape his gilded prison and trek across Africa on a Harley digging wells with his college buddies. Seriously that’s his dream: digging wells on a Harley.
Situated firmly on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum is Lindsey (Newton). Left alone to provide for her daughter after the death of her soldier husband in Iraq she has little time for fanciful visions of Harley-riding and well-digging. She’s too busy trying in vain to make ends meet as a janitor at … you guessed it: Deeds Inc. Despite her lowly status Lindsey clings fiercely to her independence which places her in stark contrast to Wesley.
Fate all but demands that Wesley and Lindsey make a match but not before their respective plights are established – and re-established – over a prolonged and laborious set-up that drowns in tedious exposition. (The majority of the dialogue in Good Deeds is devoted to affirming the obvious.) The desperate nature of Lindsey’s situation in particular is driven home with wearisome repetition in scene after scene depicting her various indignities suffered at the hands of the System. Newton an actress of impressive range and dexterity brings dignity and pathos to a role that probably asks too much of her.
A more efficient filmmaker might have trimmed a half-hour from Good Deeds’ first half without compromising its story one iota but then again that would only hasten the descent into soap-opera hysterics that marks the film’s second half.
The potential exists in Good Deeds for a thoughtful examination of class divisions within the African-American community – a topic that Perry who rose from poverty to become Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer is uniquely equipped to explore – but what we get instead is an overwrought hybrid of aristocratic melodrama and How Wesley Got His Groove Back.
An artless aesthetic and narrative inconsistencies attest to the hastiness of the film’s assembly. In one scene Natalie’s flamboyantly effeminate male friend (played inexplicably by comedian Jamie Kennedy) complains that she’s never even mentioned her fiancé let alone introduced them. Yet when he encounters Wesley in quite literally the next scene they appear as if longtime acquaintances. It’s a problem that could have been easily fixed by a quick re-shoot or two but I suspect Perry was already too preoccupied with work on The Marriage Counselor – arriving in theaters less than six months from now – to bother with them if he worried about the issue at all. And if he doesn’t care then why should we?
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There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.