Usually when a Tyler Perry movie is "bad" it's because he got it right enough to approach the same mundane mediocrity of other family friendly mainstream films and therefore lacks the illicit joys his more exciting movies provide. His three very best films, Daddy's Little Girls, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and The Family That Preys, all have typical Tyler Perry problems but manage to overcome them to offer moments of real value. As a result, I rarely revisit any of them.
Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, however, is a whole different kind of bad. In every way I can think of save maybe for the cinematography, this is the worst Tyler Perry film ever. But unlike his other "worst" films, Temptation fails to bring even the trashy exploitation it spends its whole running time teasing. While something like Why Did I Get Married Too shocks us with its full-frontal yet accidental immorality, Temptation shocks for its complete lack of bite. I've only seen it once and already dread watching it again.
Perry mistakenly aims for a slow burn. I admire the attempt as that's a story structure he's yet to try out. While I find Tyler Perry a filmmaker of limited talent, I also believe he often designs his non-Madea projects specifically to challenge himself with some new storytelling wrinkle. This is why, if you're willing to look closely, his films are not as alike as you'd think.
Here the experiment backfires. Three of Temptation's four(!) acts are completely inert and boring, getting by only on the idea that they might lead up to something worthwhile. They don't. Here's one red flag: The whole film is being told by a marriage counselor to a lady in a troubled marriage (she's having an "almost affair" similar to the one Tyler Perry make such a big deal out of in Why Did I Get Married Too). After the "big" climax we return to the framing device and the lady eagerly asks: "How does the story end?" Tyler Perry doesn't seem to realize that this means he fucked up. To cement this, the marriage counselor responds: "It's still being written." So maybe there will be a part two someday.
The moral Tyler Perry wants to sell to his mostly female audience is very specific and I'm sure of great relevance. Marriage is difficult and likely every hitched person in the history of domesticity has fantasized about having an affair. Since this is all melodramatic fantasy, might as well make the other man super attractive, sexually aggressive, and wealthy beyond exaggeration. Meanwhile the guy at home is nerdy, mild mannered, and kind of boring in the sack. Also, he forgets birthdays. (But holy shit, does he have a nice body.)
That's not quite dramatic enough, though. So let's make this doomed couple not just husband and wife, but soul mates who have been inseparable since they were six years old, just like Forrest Gump (who was also gentle and kind) and Jenny (who was also a slut who got HIV).
Also, let's make the lady's mother a preacher. Because betraying her husband isn't enough. She also needs to betray her class, culture, and spirituality on her path to debauchery (which includes a strange form of cocaine which makes you stumble like a drunkard).
This all sounds like a perfect Tyler Perry set up, the kind of hilarious ridiculousness I come to these films for. And on that very base level, the film is not that different from any other Tyler Perry movie.
But the choice to spend way more than half the film (my attempt to time it on this first watch didn't fare so well) on the main character's seduction is Perry's big, disastrous mistake. Every time Temptation appears ready to change gears, it never does. Tyler Perry simply spends too much time on courtship and seduction and hesitation and adultery and regret and hesitation and seduction and adultery and regret. The whole thing feels like it should be over already when it's just getting started.
And speaking of the seduction stuff, Tyler Perry's approach to sex isn't that far off from Steve Carrell's character in The 40 Year Old Virgin describing a woman's breast as feeling like sand. It's basically just a bunch of steam and candles and lines that sound like they were written by a very horny but inexperienced twelve year old girl. Obviously, there's a lot of unintentional humor to be mined from this stuff, but I'm looking for something a bit more than "so bad it's good" from Tyler Perry.
Besides, Perry's puritanical views on sex mean the act weighs far more for him dramatically than it does to us, a misalignment of perspectives that contributes greatly to the film's lack of excitement. Only highly sheltered tweens and Tyler Perry himself could find this film steamy or seductive.
As usual, it's difficult to rate performances because actors are given lines and get asked to execute characters that stray so far from recognizable human behavior there's little chance to come off well. Every once in a while an MVP comes along who can walk this tightrope, but no one manages it this time.
Jurnee Smollett Bell's Judith appears to be a very good actress, but this role crushes her. She spends most of the time gawking at Robbie Jones' Harley with her mouth half open, and grossly overplays it once she becomes an evil character late in the film. That probably wasn't her idea, though. Lance Gross misplays her cuckolded husband Brice as exceedingly charming when he is supposed to be a bore. That probably was not his idea, though, either. Instead of hiring a schlubby, perhaps overweight but nice guy like he should have, Perry just cannot resist the hotness.
Tyler Perry doesn't know what he's doing with these characters. Or maybe he does, and he's just way smarter than I give him credit for. For instance, Brice's greatest crime is forgetting Judith's birthday (for two consecutive years!). Upon realizing his mistake, he serenades his lady in the nude. While awkward, the scene is not without charm, and by all appearances wins Judith over. So we're a little shocked when she's still wounded by his birthday slight the next day, making her seem like a huge brat (on top of how upset she gets in the first place). The thing is, I can't say 100% whether or not Tyler Perry deliberately constructed this scene to make us start hating Judith early, or if he thinks she's still our protagonist at this point.
It's especially tricky because Judith eventually becomes the villain while Brice suddenly becomes the main character. If you think about it, that's some advanced shit, narrative-wise. Perry fails, but his accidental ambition is still remarkable. and perfectly encapsulates why I love him.
See, Perry's great talent (other than comic riffing on stage and appearing to be a normal, healthy person in public) is making us feel hatred for his villains. This talent is so strong, in fact, that it can get out of hand and spray all over characters it's not supposed to. That's part of loving the guy, watching him present characters he thinks are good but we automatically recognize as morally repugnant.
Here, however, it's just way out of whack, leaving us no one to root for, something we need for the melodramatic hatred to take hold. Look at Judith's religious mother Sarah, who should supply a sense of the familial, small town warmth Judith throws away by falling in with Harley. Instead, Sarah's religious fervor recalls the overzealous and dangerous mother from Carrie, a wacko rather than a moral authority. (This anti-religious sentiment is actually in keeping with the rest of Perry's oeuvre.)
The last time Tyler Perry tried this cuckolded husband plot out was in The Family that Preys. At least then, the lady was all the way evil, the guy was all the way good (and remarkably stupid). And when the shit goes down it goes DOWN, with the guy punching his lady in the face. Nothing so great and dynamic happens here and the battle lines are too blurred to bring forth much excitement.
One last thing: Until now I have never seen Kim Kardashian move, nor have I ever heard her speak. But the controversy surrounding Tyler Perry's decision to cast a fame whore as a shallow attempt at ticket sales was well founded. Even in a Tyler Perry film, she's distractingly awful. Everything about her is awkward. Her line delivery is atrocious, her body looks like a random assortment of uncomfortable bubbles, even the act of walking appears to tax her abilities. I don't say this as an easy attack against a well-hated public figure, but she genuinely surprised me. Her scenes are absolute cacophony.
When people ask me which Tyler Perry films they should watch, my answer is always the same: Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Big Happy Family, and the two Why Did I Get Married movies. If you still want more after that, congrats - you're a fan. Tempation, however, is the first Tyler Perry film that even I, a genuine admirer, dread to revisit. I guess that in and of itself makes it special.