Oh God (pun intended), here we go again…

Alfre Woodard (Love and Basketball), Sanaa Lathan (Love and Basketball), Taraji P. Henson (Talk to Me), Rockmond Dunbar (TV’s “Prison Break”), Kathy Bates (Misery), Cole Hauser (Paparazzi), and actor/producer/writer/director Tyler Perry (Meet the Browns).

It’s like a semiannual tradition by now: Tyler Perry releases a film and I attack, er, review it. The trailers look enticing, Mr. Perry doesn’t offer it up for advance critical review (not that his lemming-like following would care about a critic’s review anyhow), and the film, without fail, spectacularly disappoints. But wait! This time, Tyler’s got (gasp!) WHITE PEOPLE. My Lord - he’s even roped Alfre Woodard into this AND promises a semblance of a complicated plot at work in the trailers! He has even recruited the ORIGINAL REEL DEAL Crush, Sanaa Lathan into the fold. (Pause, out of respect. Wait for it…Okay, we’re moving on). Being in Atlanta, Ground Zero for TP Fever, will my review be unduly influenced by my environment or will Tyler step up the writing in the presence of a white Oscar winner? Hell, will the direction??? Or will my review be another evisceratingly honest assessment of Tyler Perry’s lack of artistry that brings out the predictably knee-jerk, erroneous calls that (all together now!) “THE REEL DEAL don’t like black movies”?? Roll camera, dim the lights, and let’s start the show…

Everybody knows a guy like Chris Bennett (Dunbar): hard-working, family man, ambitious, unconditionally loves his wife. Everybody knows a girl like Andrea Bennett (Lathan): scheming, secretive, adulterous, disrespectful, jazzy at the mouth at times. When she’s not hiding money from Chris in secret accounts, she’s cheating on him with her boss and family friend William Cartwright (Hauser), an old money, white construction magnate who has an openly contentious relationship with his mom, Charlotte (Bates). While William’s struggling to prove his worth to the company and family, his mom takes off on a “Thelma and Louise”-style roadie with her best friend (and Andrea’s mom) Alice, a very down-home, religified diner shop owner with a

heart as wide as the Grand Canyon, in the midst of an internal power struggle between her son and newly hired executive Abigail Dexter (Robin Givens).

And if that weren’t enough, Andrea’s sister Pam (Henson), when not getting in everybody else’s business and catting it up with her sibling, goads her husband Ben to chase entrepreneurship with Chris by starting their own construction company - by soliciting seed money from William Cartwright. Got all that?

I know you can’t wait to hear if we have a baby or an(other) abortion. I am happy to say that…It’s a FILM!!! (Pause for applause - and cigars!)

As a director, Perry is still amateurish in the pacing and staging of the scene - especially in the movement/blocking (Seriously - can’t we get like a ghost director to come in to tell the actors how to move at times to make it less melodramatic, kinda like an offensive or defensive coordinator does in football?? Here, Tyler, you work with the words and the expressions, I’ll handle the blocking; this isn’t theater…I’m just saying.) - but at least he’s smart enough NOT to “direct” his great actors and just gets out of their way of their talent and performances, unlike in the past where his oeuvre has been a catalog of when good actors go bad.

As a writer, Perry still overindulges in on-the-nose dialogue, but has a professional, talented enough cast who imbues enough subtlety and nuance in the proceedings to humanize it all (for an antonym, please refer to the performance of Jones, Richard T. in “Why Did I Get Married.” If a stiff wind blew, his one-dimensional charac-ature-ter would fall down). Thanks to some twisty, tasty, intra-family fragging of the rich and not-so-rich alike, “Preys’” script is quite funny, mostly because the situations and dialogue feel real, even in the midst of some typically TP Studios last act theatrics (including an unexpected but deliciously evil twist that left the whole theater - present company included - gasping for air). Embarking on a new flirtation with subtlety, Perry lightly dusts this movie with a score so laid-back, I wondered if there even was any background music (there is - and it’s subtle!). Even his overt religiosity (a creekside baptism, scripture quoting, etc.) is more organic and less overbearing than usual, despite Woodard’s message-minded, bible-toting character. Overall, the story is just downright, hyper-plotted FUN, like a “Desperate Housewives” for the Diaspora.

Playing to its strengths, “Preys” features a dazzling cast that really knows how to elevate material. Dunbar’s character is ignorant to a fault but nice enough that you don’t totally give up on him. Perry’s half-fro wigged Ben is distracting but one-half of a BEAUTIFUL black married couple with delightful, uber-REEL DEAL Crush Taraji P. Henson’s feisty Pam. They fuss at each other but know how to communicate as a team so that her nosiness and his timidness

never suck them into unnecessary drama; they’re a real-life, functional husband and wife unit.

Robin Givens channels her inner Jacqueline Broyer (”Boomerang,” y’all!), giving as good as she gets in toe-to-toe boardroom brawling with Cole Hauser’s semi-subtle (there goes that word again), smarm-oozy performance. In fact, Hauser’s “soft-spoken to the point of psychotic” swagger is just another nuance placed on this production that’s a welcome addition to a Tyler Perry production. Eschewing any pretense of subtlety for a fried green tomato accented joie de vivre, Kathy Bates is a HOOT as aging, free-spirited Charlotte, a boozy, breezy turn that works really well with Woodard when they engage in some good, old sisterly humor (”I’ve never seen you drive! Where’s Morgan Freeman?” quips Woodard’s astonished Alice at Charlotte behind the wheel).

Ah, Sanaa. Yes, my FutureBabyMomma - no, I’ll elevate her to FutureMrs.Jackson - is in fine form. In fact, Sanaa CONTINUES to rewrite the definition of FOINE! Oh, but her performance? In taking what easily could have been misdirected into a Richard T. Jonesish, mustache-twirling (uh, weave-twirling???) role as comic book-convincing, villainous extraordinaire and owning it without compunction (her Andrea stares at Chris like I do those who talk on their cell phones during movies), Lathan, like Henson and Givens, is one of the few Tyler Perry alumnae who can take some of his more spot-on dialogue and breathe three dimensions into it, even with a smirking slice of spice. Her Andrea’s only redeemable quality may be that she’s fine, yet no matter how flat-out evil she may come off with her jet-black hair and matching attitude, Sanaa’s able to make her relatable in ways previous TP antagonists have not. Any guesses why? Hmm…I think it starts with an “s”…

Okay, stop texting me y’all, I’m done with this review! Here it is, in all its glory. It took awhile to say this about Tyler Perry. Brace yourselves, as it’s as shocking to me as it is to you: He’s getting better. Amen to that!



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