‘Tyler Perry’s Temptation’ Review
Genius or madman, auteur or amateur, Tyler Perry is a fascinating artist. And while it shouldn’t earn him either new fans or detractors, 'Temptation' is his most polished showcase to date of the bizarre and utterly irresistible divide between his razor-sharp creativity and decidedly duller technical precision. The story of a bored therapist who gets involved with one of her clients, Perry’s film wields melodrama like a hatchet, wringing moralistic justice from a story that’s remarkably more complex than it’s being sold – and, in fact, than Perry probably realizes.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell ('The Great Debaters') plays Judith, a therapist at a company that provides dating services for millionaires and CEOs without enough time to troll for chicks at their local watering hole. Six years into her marriage with childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Gross), the couple has reached a state of (mostly-) blissful complacency – that is, until tech entrepreneur Harley (Robbie Jones) shows up in her office. The two begin a tenuous partnership with the intention of helping Judith’s boss Janice (Vanessa Williams) expand her business; but after a handful of private sessions and late-night meetings, their relationship threatens to migrate from the boardroom to the bedroom.
After Brice forgets Judith’s birthday, she agrees to accompany Harley on a trip to New Orleans, where the millionaire woos her with his luxurious lifestyle and the promise of a kind of excitement she can’t find in her husband’s one-bedroom apartment. But when her return home coincides with the arrival of her Bible-thumping mother Sarah (Ella Joyce), Judith is forced to make a choice between the security and familiarity of her marriage and the passion and decadence of an affair.
Inexplicably, the film is structured around a framing device where a couples counselor tells the story of Judith, Brice and Harley to a client who is herself considering having an affair. Notwithstanding the fact that said counselor must have literally used up the entire session telling a story whose moral amounts to “if you cheat, you’re going to burn in hell,” Perry’s narrative digresses into other character’s lives without regard for the fact that the narrator would not ever have been privy to those points of view. At the same time, it seems as if the whole story was some sort of religious parable, translated onto the plot of Adrian Lyne’s 'Unfaithful,' so when the film returns to a “present day” that supposedly happens ten years later, we’re not meant to think too much about the technological or logistical ramifications of the film’s timeline.
Although its premise doesn’t pay off in the same fully insane way that something like Nicholas Sparks’ 'Safe Haven' did, Perry’s film offers a perhaps equally schizophrenic look at relationships which defies easy interpretation – sadly in a way that speaks less to deliberate ambiguity to conceptual uncertainty. For example, opening scenes that detail Judith and Brice’s teenage romance suggest that the idea of one sexual partner before marriage is woefully outdated, but the karmic or spiritual retribution wrought on Judith’s life after she succumbs to temptation appears to unequivocally imply that if you transgress, you will pay the ultimate price.
It’s safe to say that Perry is arguing that there’s a happy medium between one sexual partner and a life of self-destructive hedonism. But the film’s approach to exploring that spectrum is so melodramatic, it can only be described as “Perryesque” – meaning, no one pitches their stories at the intensity that he does, so some viewers may find themselves struggling to relate to what I assume he intends to be a sort of universal quandary. That said, he’s clearly touching upon concepts that probably need to be explored with this sort of probing curiosity, even if they might demand more nuance than he’s capable of as a storyteller or director.
Moreover, he continues to demonstrate a uniquely honest, commonsense approach to problem-solving via his characters that the rest of Hollywood should pay attention to. At a crucial moment in the film, Brice is being consoled by Melinda (Brandy Norwood) after discovering that his wife may be having an affair, and he makes a pass at her – acquiescing to the cinematic conceit that all people in movies have a right person for them, and that person is usually right in front of them. Melinda gently stops him, saying “we are not attracted to another,” and then observes that he’s trying to cover up the pain from his relationship with any sort of pleasurable substitute. This kind of candor virtually never happens in movies, mostly because happy endings almost always come without any strings, conditions or challenges, but Perry’s inclusion of the moment speaks to a greater understanding of human psychology than most filmmakers even pretend to maintain.
At the same time, Perry’s tone-deafness makes bad moments seem worse, and it’s ultimately this unevenness that undermines his little morality play. (A scene in which Judith wards off Harley’s advances only to have him respond, “now you can say you resisted,” and then promptly give in to them, will almost undoubtedly offend many viewers, even if it’s meant as an outward manifestation of Judith’s struggle within herself.) But Temptation remains his best-made film from a technical standpoint, which demonstrates that he is learning from his experiences – whether he intends to or not. And even without being entirely sure what he intends to say -- or maybe even ask -- the fact that those questions, real questions, are raised by Tyler Perry’s work, means that it cannot be dismissed.
'Temptation' is in theaters now.
Todd Gilchrist is a film critic and entertainment journalist with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, Boxoffice Magazine, Movies.com, Variety, The Playlist, Cinematical, MTV Movies blog, and IGN.com, where he served as IGN DVD Editor in Chief. Todd currently lives in Los Angeles with his two cats Nemo and Otis.