THE FAMILY THAT PREYS: Tyler Perry ‘s Triumphant Return to Fine Form

If you have ever been in a conversation with, or about artists, their art and sources of inspiration, you’ve probably heard the ubiquitous examples and anecdotes about the suffering artist and the powerful and unceasing catalyst of suffering, despair and hard times. If Tyler Perry is to be believed his latest production The Family That Preys was borne from such a source. In a post on his disarmingly honest and gracious website email update he shares that he wrote this script while in the doldrums from being used, abused, victimized and cheated. He says he was not in a good space and was questioning the authenticity of family, so-called friends and mankind in general. If Perry is to be believed, I have to say, that while I wish no one ill, I wish him more hard-knock inspiration if it will bear fruit as sweet and tasty as The Family That Preys.

While Meet the Browns left me feeling rather dissatisfied, The Family That Preys more than makes up for the gap left by its predecessor. This film more than adequately redeemed Perry and his ability to write, direct and produce a great film.

With engrossing cinematography, a well-crafted, multi-layered script, solid direction and superb acting this film reaches out from the screen, pulls the audience in, connects us with the heart and pulse of the characters, then puts us back in our seats, sated, satisfied and saying: Yes!

The story revolves around 2 very different families connected by their dissimilar matriarchs Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard) who runs a diner and business woman and socialite Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates). When the movie beginsAlice’s eldest daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) is marrying a nervous Chris (Rockmond Dunbar) in a lavish wedding paid for by Cartwright. Andrea is cynical and aloof, much to the chagrin of her sister Pam (Taraji P. Henson) whose husband Bill (Tyler Perry) is Chris’ comforting best man. Enter stage left,Charlotte’s son and heir William (Cole Hauser) and his wife (Kadee Strickland). His attraction to the newly wed Andrea is palpable and insidious. Let the games begin. Jump four years and Andrea now works for the Cartwrights as an accountant, alongside William in the family’s high-powered firm, Chris is also employed to them, but further down the totem pole as a construction worker on one of their projects (as is Bill).  In this wonderful patchwork of possibilities, Perry deftly delineates the plots and sub-plots that include: the pain of infidelity, the power of friendship, coping with a chronic illness, the adventure of a road trip, marital incompatibility, office politics, family feuds, dreams of a better life, inter-racial relationships and class separations.

In addition to the overall end result of a well-written, explored, expanded and credible script, Perry ups the ante and tickles his audience with some inspired, memorable and snappy one-liners: most of them were gifts given to seasoned actresses Woodard and Bates. One of my favourites is when Bates’ son questions her trust in him, she replied: “Oh I do trust you, it’s your private thoughts that give me pause”

The recipe for a movie that resonates with its audience must have ingredients that work in tandem: the final ingredient here is a cast that is up to the task of matching or exceeding the other components of the project. For The Family That Preys, Perry assembled  a cast worth their weight in gold. This array of fine actors gave performances that range from credible and committed to riveting and effortless.  In the relatively small role of William Cartwright’s wife Kadee Strickland turned in a commendable and credible performance. For his part, Cole Hauser was well-cast as William. He brought a cold, calculating, almost reptilian quality to the role that added a great deal to the role and the film. Tyler Perry must have been aware of the company he was in and turned in one of the best performances I seen him give as Bill. He’s usually unstoppable as Madea, especially on-stage, but most of his movie roles often feel like walk ons, that was not the case here.  Robin Givens makes a strong return to the big screen as Abby Dexter, who Charlotte hires as the new COO of the company business, a job her son thought he was guaranteed. Taraji P. Henson is always quite good on-screen and she does not disappoint here. She turns in an honest, gritty and convincing portrayal as Pam. I look forward to seeing this young lady advance her career. Rockmond Dunbar, who has the looks and talent of a leading man, was efficient and controlled as the beleaguered Chris. I hope we see him in more films and in even more challenging roles.

That brings me to the three women who I felt outdid themselves in this film, the usually sweet good girl Sanaa Lathan was in exceptional form in a disturbingly accurate and realistic performance as the damaged and spiteful Andrea. She was stunning as she balanced physical beauty and spiritual ugliness. Kathy Bates was delightful and adept in her effortless turn as Charlotte. She masterfully juggled the characters tough-as-nails exterior and eye-for-an-eye morality, with her vulnerability, zest for life, infectious laughter and loyalty.

Alfre Woodward gave a simply flawless performance asAlice. The veteran actress dug deep and delivered a completely convincing, moving, and nuanced interpretation of a woman who had been through a lot, survived to tell it and maintained a heart and soul full of love and patience. She is radiant and without parallel in this film.

There is a saying in theatre and film, which says there are no small parts, in celebration of this adage, I must mention and give kudos to Kaira Whitehead who gave a dazzlingly delicious and memorable characterization of spunky and mischievous Cartwright receptionist Robin She was, in a word: wonderful!

There are only two things I would change about The Family That Preys: Pam’s character could have been explored and developed a bit more and Bill’s distracting mini-afro has got to go!

All told, The Family That Preys is a triumph, and in true Perry style, the writer, director, producer delivers a parting crowning glory at the end of the movie in Gladys Knight soul-stirring remake of Martina McBride’s I Hope You Dance. In response I say: “We will Tyler, we will!”

 

 

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