Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Film Review--Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys

The Family That Preys
written and directed by Tyler Perry
starring Alfre Woodard, Kathy Bates, Sanaa Lathan, Rockmond Dunbar, KaDee Strickland, Cole Hauser, Tarajj P. Henson, Robin Givens, Sebastian Siegel

In Tyler Perry’s “The Family that Preys”, cruelties and heartbreaks inform a story that is richly textured, nuanced and exquisitely constructed. The hardest working man in show business brings yet another offering that demonstrates the intricacies of deceit that afflict those who get caught up in the absurd business of living.

Alice Pratt (Woodard) and Charlotte Cartwright (Bates) have been friends for thirty years ever since Charlotte’s husband tried to buy out Alice’s business but she wasn’t selling. They live two entirely distinct lifestyles; Alice works at her diner when not separating her perpetually fighting adult daughters, Andrea (Lathan) and Pam (Henson). Charlotte runs a exceedingly successful construction company started by her husband. She has leisure to spare and purchases a fancy old Chevrolet for her cross country trip. She tries to convince Alice to join her but she’s hesitant at first only to give in at the last moment. Their trip through the midwest gives the film a levity that it desperately needs. Otherwise it’s intensely serious drama that approaches melodrama in several scenes but doesn’t quite succumb. This is a story about the various methods fangs are employed to pierce the flesh of those closest to us. It’s about suffering through people in the vain hope that they’ll figure it out eventually and come around.

As the film opens Andrea has just married Chris (Dunbar). He’s former military looking for a job in construction. William Cartwright, Charlotte’s son and executive in the company, approaches the blissful couple with his new wife Jillian (Strickland). He offers Chris a job and tells Andrea to look him up when she’s done with her Finance degree. There is a quick moment between William and Andrea that is fairly subtle but clear enough to help articulate what comes next. The film moves four years and Andrea and Chris have a three year old son. Chris works for the Cartwrights with Ben (Perry) and has dreams about owning his own construction company which Andrea ridicules. Indeed, Andrea is routinely cold with Chris and claims always to be too tired for intimacy when she comes home from work. Meanwhile Chris discovers that his wife has another bank account with nearly $300,000 in it. He addresses this issue with Andrea but she claims it’s merely from bonuses she’s received from work. There is terrific tension between these actors and the film manages to capture something of the give and take between them.

There are several instances where expectations are met with consternation or outright rejection. Chris is an upstanding man who merely wants to provide for his family the best he can. He’s met with perpetual resistence by a wife who seems to have taken him for granted. There is coldness between them that appears initially to be merely a slight bump in the road but later proves to be much more serious. Andrea is dedicated to maintaining her status at the Cartwright company and has her own dreams of a larger lifestyle than Chris can afford. For much of the marriage she has carried most of the financial burden in the family and this has caused her some resentment. She chides her husband routinely for his limited purchasing power and the marriage subsequently suffers.

The biting nature of these characters is exploited to fine effect throughout this film. The mother-son relationship between Charlotte and William is particularly contentious. He pouts when he is looked over for the C.O.O position for an outsider named Abby (Givens) with pristine credentials who knows much more about the ins and outs of the company along financial lines. William is determined to save face and begins to plot against his mother.

The familiar Perry touch of spirituality is in full effect in this film. Alice is a believer who praises Jesus at every opportunity and who attends choir practice regularly. On their road trip she stops off at a baptism and convinces Charlotte to be baptized in the river. This is apparently to demonstrate the cleansing of a great white witch of international commerce by a black preacher. Perhaps there’s some residual guilt playing here but Perry doesn’t make it explicit. He merely provides us with a moment to pause and to realize the foundation that holds this film aloft. Christianity in this film isn’t a focus but its presence is felt throughout. The characters bicker and fuss but Alice’s character holds fast and tight to her lifeline and Woodard gives her a tremendous grace and a center of calm that is something that only her faith can bring her.

There is a peculiar lack of sexuality in this film. Alice and Charlotte are happily chaste and seem to be enough for one another to handle. Pam is happily married to Ben but beyond a bit of fun loving there isn’t anything particularly sexual about their relationship although it is assumed that something of that sort exists. Andrea’s sexuality is haunted and fragmented and it nearly drives her to ruin. Abby is super-executive who has elevated herself far beyond the messy inconveniences of sexual play. Yet, she’s a shark who devours people because it’s fun and because she can. Abby is ugly in her beauty, her intensity and cruelty. She is the most alluring sexually of the five women because she is so explicitly off limits. She can only be aroused by demonstrations of naked power which explains her derision of William who struggles with his identity in the company once he’s passed over. Their relationship is very much like slave to master and she is laughing the entire time.

There is an immediacy to many of the scenes that is played out with clarity of form and exquisite timing. This is a film that focuses entirely on interpersonal relationships and eschews any particular social commentary that might otherwise help to inform the action taking place. It’s a sociological study in the methods employed to dig at those around us who we assume will be able to take the effects of our attacks. All of these relationships take place in strictly established confines that allow the participants the luxury of movement and the delusion of safety. Each player in these little dramas attempts to establish leverage which they use in various ways to prick at the sensitivities of their rivals. Andrea is particularly good at this as she constantly insults Chris by telling him he’ll never be William Cartwright. The film slowly unveils the greatest treachery of all. William has been giving money to Andrea while filling her head with promises that he’ll leave his wife for her. Andrea is completely hooked and can’t extract herself from her folly. Charlotte and William play a strange game with one another. She treats him with quiet disdain and he desperately longs to extricate himself from her authority. He is, after all, a mere executive in a company that his mother owns. His ambitions drive him toward her but he can hardly stand to face himself as she pulls him close to her. The family bond is transcended by the grab for power and Perry handles the specifics of these events with authority.

The performances in this film are generally mesmeric. Particularly strong is Robin Givens as the cutthroat Abby. Givens gives her character a definitive strength of both character and physicality. Her posture, the way she carries her self, and the sly half smile she offers whenever she’s landed a particularly salient point all express the same undeniable fact: this is a woman of power and decisiveness. Givens conveys this with a raw intensity that provides Abby with just enough ammunition to give it her worst. Alfre Woodard is the gentle, god-fearing aspect of the film that keeps it grounded. Alice is the backbone of this film and Woodard provides her with an elegance and a purity of spirit that is enchanting. Rockman Dunbar’s performance becomes more enhanced as the film progresses. Chris is the typical hardworking, clean, upstanding black man who buys into the American dream. He’s not as exclusively educated as his wife but he’s smart about the day to day stuff of working reality. Dunbar gives Chris a dignity and an honor that is clearly expressed on his face alongside the moments of hurt and confusion that only solidify his status as a man of significance. Sanaa Lathan plays another fiercely independent woman who is on a fast track to her own elevated position at some giant company or other. She’s caught up in the machinery of ambition and carries herself like someone who’s eager to slake her thirst on the iniquities of lesser beings. Kathy Bates’s Charlotte is the most heartbroken of all the characters. There are several scenes that show the pain on her face as she struggles through. Bates does a wonderful job of revealing her character’s troubles piecemeal without giving very much away and any particular time.

Overall, this is a powerful and effective film that showcases a great number of extraordinarily talented actors who flesh out their characters and make them fully believable. There are several moments where it feels like a soap opera but that isn’t necessarily a criticism. Great soaps have a magnetic power that sucks people in which is the purpose of creating watchable dramas that resonate with a person long after the final credits have rolled. This is a film about self-inflicted torments and how they come to roost in the lives of those who inflict them. At the core of this film is a sense of hope that no matter how terrible things get there is always the chance that something will come around the bend which will alleviate some of the terrible pressure of living.

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