Tyler Perry’s Temptation (2013)
I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie before this review. I’ve paid attention to the noted writer/director making his own empire with healthy returns from African-American audiences, primarily female. The man has developed a monstrous following built upon his stage plays and now his films. Honestly, I just never felt the desire to watch a Perry film. I sort of figured what I’d be getting and decided I had other things to do with my time. So why did I finally take the leap and watch a Perry film? I don’t think most objective critics would refer to Perry’s oeuvre as quality, but I also don’t think a past Perry production has been as derided as Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (based upon his play). One of my duties as a film critic is to seek out the movies I suspect may be the worst of that year so that I can have a better perspective on the best and worst movies in a calendar year (my only rationale, besides morbid curiosity, for watching InAPPropriate Comedy). Chiefly I watched Temptation because I feared it would be bad, and it was indeed, but what I didn’t expect was how incensed it would make me with its repugnant, piggish, and asinine portrayal of women. Oh, and the rest of the movie isn’t good either.
A marriage counselor tells a young couple the cautionary tale of Judith (Jumee Smollet-Bell), a 26-year-old therapist working for a high end Washington D.C. matchmaker service. She’s married to her childhood sweetheart, Brice (Lance Gross), who works as a pharmacist with dreams of opening his own store one day. Judith would like to open her own counselor office but is told to wait. Then Harley (Robbie Jones) steps into her life. He’s the rich successful inventor of Class-Meet, “the third most successful social media guru since Zuckerberg.” Let that one soak in (who or what is #2?). Harley wants to develop a personality matching service and thinks Judith’s unique insights into people are key to cracking this business. In reality, he just wants to sleep with her and eventually does one night when he forces herself on her. Judith is a wreck and can’t stop seeking more attention from Harley. Not even Judith’s mother, Reverend Sarah (Ella Joyce), can save her as she plummets into a life of drugs and shocking behavior.
The ostensible message from Perry’s film/sermon is so odious that it caused me great discomfort and made me question Perry’s reputation as a female-friendly writer. This is designed to be a cautionary tale about the power of lust leading good women astray, and it appears that it’s only women in this world, but moving on. It’s designed to impart lessons to the audience, but the only lesson I kept partaking, again and again, was that, ladies, it’s all your fault. It’s all Judith’s fault and she must be punished for her wicked ways, except it only takes a small moment of pause to realize that this is completely untrue. First of all, Judith’s marriage is not the wellspring of happiness that Perry may want people to interpret. Her husband has fallen into old routines and clearly neglects her needs; the guy forgot her birthday TWO YEARS IN A ROW. How does that happen? There are clear communication issues as well. He’s unwilling to expand his sexual activity beyond chaste lovemaking in the same location. He expects her to cook him food by the end of the night (more on this topic later) and he downplays her desires, not just sexually, but professionally, her goal to open her own counseling office. They’ve been childhood sweethearts for over twenty years, but that time commitment doesn’t necessarily mean that they are meant for one another (more of that topic later).
Regardless, all of this is context for Judith considering straying from her husband with the more assertive, dangerous, and attentive Harley. But here’s the distinction. Judith is raped. She doesn’t cheat on her husband, Harley rapes her, and she blames herself. Not just that, Perry and the film appear to take the position that she is to blame, that she brought it all on herself. She tells Harley no, he advances anyway, she physically tries to push him away but he overpowers her, finally adding, “Now you can say you resisted.” I’m sorry to be blunt but what the fuck is that? What kind of sick, rape-culture coddling erroneous thinking is this, that all women secretly want sex despite physically trying to escape and screaming no? Harley isn’t supposed to be an upstanding character, so his actions have some degree of understanding in context, but how could Perry posit this garbage? And apparently, according to the movie, she really wanted it all along despite her protests because only a day later she’s flooding Harley with phone calls begging for more. She’s fallen for her rapist. At no point does any character refer to this as rape. At no point does Judith consider herself a victim. At no point does any character blame someone other than Judith.
What’s even more disgusting is that Judith must continue to be punished, and so (spoiler alert) she is given HIV. Harley is HIV-positive, and so the man who raped her transmitted a deadly STD, and it’s all Judith’s fault. She should have known better than letting a man like that rape her. I have to stop from throwing up in my mouth just typing these sentences. And for the final insult, the end reveals that Brice didn’t catch her HIV and in fact has a new wife and a lovely family. Judith is all alone. Because it’s not possible for HIV-positive people to raise children, right? The closing shot, I kid you not, is Judith’s sad long walk into the distance, to essentially contemplate what she did and all that has been wrought. Forget that despicable nonsense.
Perry’s films deal with such unrelenting melodrama that you’d be hard-pressed to find anything subtle, least of all is the religious content. Thanks to my colleague, Ben Bailey, and his self-imposed penalty of watching all of the Madea films (enjoy Madea Saves Christmas, Ben) I have a better understanding of the man’s tropes in his prolific filmography, and Perry’s proselytizing is a constant. I don’t have a problem with faith and spirituality, a personal subject, but rarely are matters of faith as simplistic as Perry’s solutions seem. Perry’s ongoing solution seems to be going back to Jesus for the one-size-fits-all problem of… not enough Jesus. That’s about it. Every problem seems to stem from a deficient amount of religion or spiritual virtues in a person’s life. This notion extends to Judith as well, as her reverend mother seems to pinpoint all her troubles to not going to church. You see, sleeping in on Sundays has made Judith a less moral person, even though she still firmly believes in no sex before marriage enough to not even consider questions of sexuality with her profile service she’s designing with Harley. Really Judith, do you think everyone has those same values? I could lay that same inquiry to Perry, because none other than the devil besets Judith, at least that’s literally what Harley is referenced to at several points. And in such black and white concepts, the complexity of a relationship naturally deteriorating and entering malaise is summed up with a ham-fisted account that our heroine wouldn’t have had her troubles if she had just been more religious. She was raped and given HIV as a lesson to go to church, you see.
The mother character is the embodiment of self-righteous indignation and hypocrisy. At no point is any of her judgmental sermonizing helpful, and the fact that she breaks into her daughter’s home to have a spiritual intervention is just ridiculous. What is most appalling is a revelation that the movie barely has time to note before speeding past. Rev. Sarah has told Judith her whole life that her father died when she was young. He’s actually alive. Judith unloads this bombshell, throwing the full weight of her mother’s hypocrisy in her face, which mom causally brushes aside and says, “This isn’t about me. It’s about you.” No, lady, you lying about your daughter’s father is definitely about you. She offers no explanation for her decades of deceit and immediately moves back to demonizing Judith’s behavior. That’s very godly of her.
Another ongoing theme in Temptation as well as Perry’s previous films is the all-out taboo of divorce. This old-fashioned perspective dictates that people, and notably women, should stick it out no matter what, even if their spouse is abusive, as in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Apparently in this world it’s better to be a married woman who gets beaten than a divorced woman who is physically safe. Newsflash: some relationships are not worth saving. Some people, despite effort and love, are just not meant to be together and some relationships just cannot be fixed. That conclusion isn’t giving up, it’s accepting a hard reality and meeting it with guts. This warped perspective is also tied in with the expectations placed upon Judith, namely being subservient to her husband. Seriously, her mom complains that she doesn’t cook enough meals for her husband. The depiction of this old-fashioned relationship itself isn’t as insulting, but when given certain credence that this subservient-woman relationship is superior, that’s when any freethinking individual, man or woman, should feel offended.
And I haven’t even mentioned that Kim Kardashian is in this movie, and oh ye God is she terrible. Written especially for her, Kardashian acts like a whiny child with one baby-voiced way of delivering any line. She could recite the Declaration of Independence and it would sound like a helium-voiced robot. Smollet-Bell (TV’s True Blood, The Great Debaters) actually delivers an acceptable performance given everything she has to fight against. She has a memorable face and displays enough talent to be noticed. The gentlemen do fine jobs, though Gross (TV’s House of Payne, Our Family Wedding) is far, far too sexy for a pharmacist. The man stepped out of the shower and has the physique of a superhero, not some guy who’s going to give pills to little old ladies.
Need one more example as to how astonishingly false and misguided and downright offensive Temptation is? In the opening narration, Judith explains that her childhood dream was to become a marriage counselor, and Brice’s childhood dream was to become a pharmacist. What? I doubt you’ll be able to find any two children on this planet where pharmacist and marriage counselor are at the top of the list. It’s details like this that showcase the lack of care given to the plot, characters, and general attempts at subtlety. The details don’t matter in Perry’s world because all that matters are the Big Points he has to say with the force of a falling anvil, usually about marriage and God. Temptation is a detestable film because of how ugly it treats women and its myopic, pigheaded, and often outdated views on relationships. It’s like the movie was created in a different era, one where women were expected to know their place. In the realm of Tyler Perry’s Temptation, if you go away from Jesus, you will get raped and you will get AIDS and you will have no one else to blame but yourself, ladies. This tone-deaf sermon is full of bad messages, bad writing, bad acting, and naive answers to complex human problems. The only real temptation you should feel while watching this movie is to eject it and break the DVD in half.
Nate’s Grade: D-