The violent clash of tones, genres, and styles that distinguishes Tyler Perry’s cinematic oeuvre is generally reflected by the jumble of punctuation found in his films’ unwieldy titles. As a title, Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor is even more unwieldy than most, but initially at least, the film exhibits an unusual, though not entirely welcome, level of focus.
Though structured as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a good Christian woman leaving a good Christian man for a sinfully irresistible seducer, Temptation starts out like a romance novel. A sexually unfulfilled wife (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) finds her values and commitment to her husband challenged by a dashing alpha male (Robbie Jones) with the looks and physique of a male model, and the fortune and power of a business tycoon. Jones spends the first hour of the film gazing lustfully and soulfully at Smollett-Bell while purring barely concealed come-ons that manage to convey, “I want to have sex with you despite your marriage and strong Christian virtues” without uttering that exact combination of words, until even a good Christian woman can no longer summon the will to resist. At this point, the film makes a whiplash tonal shift and becomes the low-rent, hysterically hyperbolic, heavy-breathing erotic thriller suggested by the film’s title (minus the eroticism, as this is a PG-13 enterprise where much of the sin is implied rather than explicitly illustrated). But for its first act, at least, the film holds much of Perry’s roaring craziness at bay, to its ultimate detriment.
Smollett-Bell lends her default expression of dour, glum intensity to the unrewarding lead role of a fiercely ambitious businesswoman. (Boo! Hiss!) Her job as an assistant to a Patti Stanger-style “Millionaire Matchmaker” played by Vanessa Williams doesn’t begin to satisfy her professional aspirations, just as her marriage to pharmacist Lance Gross doesn’t satisfy her sexually, despite Gross possessing the kindness of a saint and the physique of a Chippendales dancer. (In Perry’s beefcake world, even the boring, bland alternative strips down constantly to show off his impressive pectoral muscles.) Smollett-Bell’s dully stable, secure life is shaken up when she meets Jones, a sort of black Thomas Crown who introduces her to a world of wealth and luxuries beyond her wildest dreams. Their courtship is filled with private jet trips, mind-blowing sex, and ultimately cocaine, a development handled with all the subtlety and sophistication of an after-school special (which might actually represent a step up for Perry).
Smollett-Bell and Jones both pride themselves on their almost preternatural powers of intuition and deduction, an ability to read people with the lightning-fast insight of Sherlock Holmes. But that gift is wasted in a Tyler Perry movie, where everyone and everything are exactly what they initially seem to be. Hell, Jones is even considerate enough to essentially give Smollett-Bell a heads up that he will undergo a dramatic transformation from dream lover to coked-up Antichrist when he warns her that he gets super-intense when he falls in love. Like, crazy, psychotic, restraining-order intense. (Needless to say, he lives up to that billing.)
Temptation is initially disappointingly straightforward, despite a framing device that essentially posits the film as the longest, craziest flashback since Pootie Tang. But by the time a mysterious co-worker of Gross’ (Brandy Norwood) finally gets around to revealing the second part of the dark secret she’s been carrying around throughout the film, Temptation has reached a fine frenzy of deliriously over-the-top camp. This is aided by such bizarre and welcome distractions as Williams’ fake French accent and a hilariously stiff performance by Kim Kardashian as the film’s inexplicable comic relief, a bitchy, backstabbing co-worker of Smollett-Jones who utters bons mots like, “That’s not make-up, that’s make-down” as if she were a sex robot attempting human speech for the first time. It isn’t until Temptation grows flamboyantly bad in its final act that it rises to the level of good dumb fun in the trashy tradition of Perry’s most entertainingly awful films.