Lionsgate // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // January 26th, 2009
Business is like family. Keep your affairs in order.
Charlotte (Kathy Bates, Misery) is wealthy, a little daffy, and white. Alice (Alfre Woodard, Passion Fish) is middle class, down-to-Earth, and black. Despite their apparent differences, these southern women have been close friends for more than 30 years.
Unexpectedly, they find their lives in upheaval. Charlotte's married son, William (Cole Hauser, Paparazzi), is having a secret and long-term affair with Alice's married daughter, Andrea (Sanaa Latham, The Wood), who also works for him. Andrea's clueless husband, Chris (Rockmond Dunbar, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) -- who also works for Charlotte and William's family company -- wants to start a construction business with his brother, Ben (Tyler Perry), and is planning to ask William to back them. And Charlotte has just hired Abby (Robin Givens, A Rage in Harlem) as her company's COO -- a position William wanted and is not going to give up without a fight.
Charlotte has also purchased a 1955 Cadillac convertible and is begging Alice to accompany her on a cross-country trip -- you know, just the girls, just a way for these two old friends to spend some quality time together. The devout-yet-sassy Alice, who owns a diner, usually frowns on such frivolity, but she finally accepts. The ladies take off, leaving their troubles behind.
Well, not too far behind. At the end of this road, there's a melancholy surprise awaiting these long-time friends.
The Family That Preys is such a silly and obvious cross-breeding of salacious soap opera and revival-meeting homilies, they might as well have called it "Melrose Church."
Tyler Perry has made a mint with his plays, videos, and films. He tells fairly simple and predictable stories, and his work is artless but effective. For the most part, Perry's plays and films are geared toward black audiences, and his focus on family and religion makes his films seem almost daring.
The Family That Preys is Perry's attempt to attract a wider audience.
Perry's formula is obvious from the start: Introduce all the characters, give them a line or two of dialogue that tells us everything we need to know about them, and then send them off to do whatever is they're doing to move the story along. Perry should have just had them stand in front of the camera, describe themselves, and then go on their way: "I am William, Charlotte's son. I am wealthy and shallow, but not a completely bad person. My life would be better if I had a strong moral compass and listened to my mother instead of my ego."
Perry's direction is as ham-fisted and clumsy as his writing. Everything is exposition and explanation. If you miss something, don't worry: If it's important enough, it will be explained again. You'll know what's important and what isn't by some simple clues. If an actor says a line very carefully, enunciating every syllable, and at the end of the line, raises an eyebrow, shakes or nod his or her head, or opens his or her mouth really wide, it's probably important.
Fortunately for Perry, his cast is more than eager to indicate his script. The worst offender is Kathy Bates, who half the time seems to be doing a version of Steel Magnolias for a deaf audience, and the other half of the time seems to be doing a version of Steel Magnolias for a blind audience. The actress hasn't been this annoying since the Diabolique remake in 1996. It won't spoil anything to note that her character is walking around with a "terrible" secret; if you miss the red-arrow clues in the script, her silent-movie facial expressions should give it away. Everyone else performs fairly robotically. At times, the lines are recited so didactically, you'll think it's a dramatic reading from MapQuest.
The only one who walks away with minimal scathing is Alfre Woodard. Yes, she's playing a clichéd character, but brings a level of dignity to the role to almost salvage the whole enterprise. Perry has her relentlessly quoting the Bible and spewing the kind of down-home wisdom usually reserved for Very Special guest stars on '80's sitcoms. She actually gets away with such antics as throwing holy water on a male stripper (an unfortunate stop on the road trip) and eulogizes a loved one with a Lee Ann Womack song. Woodard is the saving grace for the movie and the primary reason why The Family That Preys, in its primitive way, succeeds.
The Family That Preys has that Love Boat kind of watchability and simplicity. Everything runs in a straight line, all endings are inevitable, and emotions and morals are no more complex than a well-timed platitude. The characters are amalgams of recognizable types plunked down in sitcom settings that elicit near-Pavlovian responses of cheers, jeers, and tears. Here and there, Perry throws us a curve ball -- an act of physical violence presented as deserved comeuppance or a character's grim and dubiously appropriate endgame -- but even these are not jarring enough to derail it. This is film as comfort food, and not the gourmet kind.
The disc is a decent job from Lionsgate. The picture looks all right but unspectacular, which is probably how it looked in theaters; ditto the audio. We get a handful of extras -- three "making of" featurettes that offer the expected warm appraisals of working on the film, along with a few deleted scenes. The deleted scenes are an interesting lot. Perry must have rethought some of the script after shooting started, because one deleted scene actually spoils a twist at the end of the film. Another, in which Andrea and William chat after having sex, is notable because a) it actually shows the perfidious couple after "the act," and b) it contains a rare, unscripted comment from Hauser that is the most natural moment in the film.
As silly and obvious as its homophone joke of a title, The Family That Preys is an easy enough time waster and is more engrossing than it deserves to be. I don't know if it will win Perry any new fans, but it should make his current ones happy.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site