C+

The Family That Preys

Making an end run around the studios and the critical establishment, Tyler Perry has established himself as a commercial powerhouse by giving an underserved audience what they want: raucous melodramas populated by largely African-American casts, with plenty of Jesus and some gender politics thrown in as well. His talents may have more to do with marketing than writing or directing, but until someone else can come close to doing what he does, Perry deserves due respect for exploiting an untapped niche.

His unabashedly matriarchal new film The Family That Preys focuses on the familes of Kathy Bates, an iron-willed millionaire who has taken the reins of her late husband's company, and Alfre Woodard, who runs a small, not particularly savory-looking luncheonette. How this chalk-and-cheese pair became best friends is explained only late in the game, and halfheartedly at that. But Perry never lets plausibility get in the way of a juicy plot element.

After opening with the wedding of Woodard's daughter Sanaa Lathan to blue-collar beau Rockmond Dunbar (paid for through Bates' largesse), Family flash-forwards four years. Dunbar is still working construction, but his sweet-tempered bride has become a high-powered ball-buster, lording her white-collar job over her husband and family. More interested in her wealthy white boss (Cole Hauser), who also happens to be Bates' son, Lathan is positively begging to be put in her place, which the movie finally does with a vengeance, encouraging the audience to cheer when her husband smacks her in the mouth.

While it's wonderful to see actresses as shamefully underemployed as Woodard and Bates on the big screen (the disparity between Perry's female and male cast members leaves no doubt where his priorities lie), even they can't make sense of his incoherent characters. One minute, Bates is ominously warning that her family "preys on the weak." The next, she's flopping into an antique convertible with Woodward for a cross-country road trip. It's as if she was acting in two different movies simultaneously. Now that Perry has established his ability to make movies on a consistent basis (the next, Madea Goes To Jail, is due in February), he should concentrate on making one at a time.

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