Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tyler Perry and Jack Chick Present 'Temptation'

Boy, did I miss an opportunity here. When I was choosing the punishment movie of 2013, I had this movie on the docket- It was even one of the finalists. Instead, I opted for Movie 43 - a film that, to my surprise, Just bored me rather than angering me.

So I decided to tag Temptation for this year's unofficial wildly inappropriate Valentine's movie (after Fireproof (2012) and I Spit On Your Grave (2013), it's becoming a theme, alright?)

Had I known then what I know now, I would have given this one the punishment slot.

Now then...where to begin, where to begin...?

One of the biggest problems I'm having in this writeup is: what can I say about this movie that hasn't already been said? This has a LOT wrong with it - both technically and in terms of a message. In fact, I'd be willing to bet money some of you are reading this because you already know how downright horrible this movie is, but you still want to see me take a baseball bat to it.

In the event my suspicion is correct, I shall do my best not to disappoint.

Now then, in getting started on this, I will ask you indulge me on a bit of a digression. On his album My Weakness is Strong, standup comedian Patton Oswalt talks about his anxieties as an upcoming father - most notably his decision to scale back his use of certain substances. One of these he brings up is LSD - his concern is not that he'll physically harm the child, but rather that in an LSD-induced state, he'll cause the kid's first memories of him to be him rambling like a complete idiot. To underscore this point, he acts out an entire mock-rambling in which he explains to his hypothetical child about the secret conspiracy behind Lucky Charms cereal. The message the cereal is sending, he argues, in its symbols hidden in the wheat pieces and the marshmellows, is that the path to Christianity "which is no fucking fun," but is full of grain and will keep you healthy and regular and the path of paganism, which is bright and colorful, will rot your teeth and make you fat.

Why do I bring this up? Because the entire time I was watching this movie, I imagined this rambling. Except unlike Patton, who is using it as an example of him making an ass of himself in front of his child, this movie totally believes the message, without any drug assistance behind it.

Actually, I take it back - that would actually be MORE pleasant than the bill of goods this movie's trying to sell.

Temptation - Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, is the latest effort (as mentioned in the title) by writer-director-producer-sometimes actor Tyler Perry. Now, I'll admit, this is actually my first time taking on one of his films. He's a presence I've been aware of for a while - most notably for the fact that there is a considerable school of criticism about the fact his films tend to send some incredibly mixed messages regarding race and morality. In fact, it was hearing how badly this handled the latter that had me going "now THIS I've gotta see."

"Look on the bright side - sure, you're gonna make a load of crappy decisions over the course of this movie that will leave you alone and miserable, but when the credits roll, I'M gonna be the one the audience wants to see die screaming."

The movie is mostly told in flashback, recounting for us the story of Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) - an ambitious woman working for a high-profile matchmaking service. She's also happily married to her childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Goss,) who works as the owner of a local pharmacy (his childhood dream, as the movie's intro tells us - so you know this guy's gotta be a nice guy.) One day, Judith's boss (Vanessa Williams, as one of the few people who seems to be trying to act in this - albeit with a bit of an odd accent) brings in a new client, a wealthy, charismatic (in theory), and somewhat short-fused client named Harley (Robbie Jones) who is apparently one of the top richest tech gurus out there. Judith gets assigned to work with him on the possibility of his investing in the company. He immediately takes a shine to her - and by shine, I mean he's rather overtly flirting pretty early on before it starts sliding into sexual harassment territory. Judith is at first shocked, but also intrigued - to this point, all her carnal knowledge has been limited to her husband (and watching HBO, as she assures us - buckle your seatbelt, the writing doesn't get any better form here.) Eventually, she caves and begins an affair with this smooth-talking playboy, who her mother (Ella Joyce) immediately pins down as the Devil himself. In true morality play fashion, Judith's life hits the skids so hard and so fast as to make the cast of Reefer Madness wonder what the Hell just blew past them.

Before I get into the problems with the story - which we could be at a while - there are two points in particular I'm gonna need to address about this movie, because I'm not gonna be able to look the other way on them otherwise.

First off, we have the acting in this. I feel kind of bad for hitting on this point. As many issues as he has, Perry IS one of the few directors out there who's getting black acting talent out there on the big screens to the extent that he is. On the other hand, I'm sure Perry could respect the idea that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions - and for however much good that casting does, the fact is, most of the cast in this movie are genuinely hard to commend in their roles. About the only people I can really say are doing much in the way of actual performing are Vanessa Williams, even if her character is mostly just an exposition device, Ella Joyce, who, to her credit, is trying to actually make the most of a character that the movie can't seem to really decide how it wants us to view her, and to an extent, Brandy Norwood as a new hire at Brice's pharmacy who provides the final clues to set up the film's climax. In Norwood's case, it's a bit of a split - she manages to handle some scenes fairly well, while underselling the urgency in others. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, are just underselling all around.

I suppose, if one REALLY wanted to, they could pitch this as the incredibly dark sequel to Moesha...but why would you want to give this thing a further reason to exist?

Well, OK, that's not fair to all of the cast - there are a few who are actually doing even worse. In particular, I'd just like to say I'm really pulling for Kim Kardashian to take this year's Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for her work on this movie. She's pulled off something I didn't think was possible - I genuinely loathed her character within the first minute she was on-screen. About the only other person that really stands out worth much of anything in this ensemble is Renee Taylor as the movie's token white at Brice's pharmacy - a role that mostly amounts to some misfired comic relief that leads me to wonder if Perry had initially written this role for his Madea character, then decided it would be for the better to leave her out of a work he was clearly trying to sell as a serious drama. ...Not that this stops him from still leaving in an iteration of the comic relief old woman anyway.

Of course, I do have to cut the cast some slack here. Most of them, anyway - Kardashian's still just awful all around on this one - it doesn't help that her character is basically just a shallow enabler who goads on most of Judith's bad decisions, but the fact is, one could still at least get a passable performance with that if they actually tried. The fact is, they're all trying to make do with a cast of characters that, at best are boring or confused, at worst, outright horrible. Before we even get into the nature of the characters, I should probably start by saying this has some of the worst dialogue I've seen in a movie since - appropriately enough - Smiley. Alongside the above-referenced nugget about HBO, this movie is riddled with some incredibly painful dialogue that feels like it was written by someone who doesn't understand how people interact. Besides the fact that there are many scenes where dialogue is essentially bound to the purpose of being an information dump - either dumping out characters' backstories, or putting their emotions front and center cause emoting is hard- some of these conversations are just mind-boggling in their implication that people genuinely converse about these things. Even if Kardashian's role were being played by someone else, her scenes would likely still be pretty insufferable simply by virtue of the fact that, again, her character's sole purpose in life is to be an incredibly shallow version of a Magic 8-Ball that gives you crappy life advice. If I actually tried to put together a reel of some of the more standout bad dialogue this movie has to offer, I'd probably get in legal trouble, since it would likely amount to just uploading the bulk of the movie as is.

Maybe that's a bit harsh - but seriously, I kind of want to give these actors a medal for being able to get some of these lines out with a straight face.

Now's probably the best time to finally take the plunge into the biggest stumbling block of this movie - it's incredibly muddled and altogether problematic message.

One of the biggest problems this movie has is that what it's saying with its moral, and what the movie itself is saying in its depiction come across as two ultimately different things. For starters, let's take a look at the characters the movie wants us to view as good: Brice means well enough as a character, and to his credit, Goss does try to make what moments he has as a good guy work - but the fact is, the movie also tries to make him fit the boring side in order to justify Judith's being lured by forbidden fruit. As a result, Brice comes across less as a well-intentioned guy who came up short, and more like the black Ned Flanders. He's depicted as such an upright citizen it's almost maddening - no matter what he's going through, be it heartbreak, rage, or disbelief, he just trucks along with a weird sort of stoicism that would make Job look and go "Come on, dude. REALLY?" Even when he DOES finally give in to his anger in the film's climax, it's such an uninspired moment that it's hard NOT to get mad at him for only being as peeved as he is. Meanwhile, as the closest thing this movie has to a moral compass, Joyce's Miss Sarah is depicted as dancing the borderline between a voice of reason and a religious zealot. She's technically right in that she's the only one who seems to realize Harley is an absolute jackass - but it's delivered through a filter that reads as a dialed down version of Mrs. White from Carrie. Therefore we have a harder time being able to take her warnings as actually credible- which, in some ways, highlights one of the bigger problems with this movie.

I actually might find him a bit more tolerable if he DID also end all of his sentences in '-iddely'. Not much more, but it WOULD help.

Meanwhile, as the protagonist of this movie, Judith is in a particularly uncomfortable spot as far as the overall movie is concerned. I've tried to give Perry the benefit of the doubt and looked at this first part from a few angles, and every time, I keep coming back to the same uncomfortable conclusion that this movie seems to want to hit home: the biggest crime that Judith is guilty of is being a woman who isn't satisifed. That's really all she's done wrong here. The sad part is, based on how Brice is written and portrayed, I can kind of see why she is. The fact is, he's a very stagnant character in a lot of ways - he got his dream, and as far he's concerned, that's enough for the both of them. That Judith should have any sort of interest in pursuing her own goals is seen as unusual, and the big reason why Harley is able to get his proverbial claws into her. Even Brice's attempts to make things better don't exactly help matters - yeah, he's a nice guy, but the film never really seems to make him actually attempt to understand her. Again, his logic seems to be "I got mine, what's your problem?" Further adding to this incredibly problematic depiction is how Perry chooses to actually have Judith and Harley's relationship start. There's really no way to sugar coat this point - he effectively rapes her.
That's right.
It's out in the open now.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't fight the urge to punch my laptop screen when THAT came about. Making it even better/worse is the fact that nothing's ever said of it after. Sure, we make much of the fact Harley's a drug user and quite abusive all-around, but the fact that he rapes Judith is really just like the, to make a reference to the movie Heavy Metal, moving violation at the end of his criminal charges. Further adding to the frustration is the fact that Judith never really seems to feel any conflict about matters. Even when Harley calls her for what's really a straight-up booty call while she's at home with her husband and mother, she gets talked into leaving with almost no effort. She commits herself alarmingly fully to a man who, despite her repeated attempts to rebuke, winds up raping her. There is no way you can NOT make this a problematic message. If anything, I'm actually surprised this film didn't get met with MORE controversy on its release. Particularly for one other point I'll be getting to in a spoiler cut at the end - one which I'm willing to bet most of you can already guess.

The notion of 'personal space' is apparently a myth in this movie. Or at least a convenience, since they really don't seem to pay this scene too much mind after it's over.

Really, this is just a very special breed of bad movie. Yes, it has many general classic hallmarks of bad cinema in general - the dialogue is awkward and almost laughable at points, the acting is confused and listless or outright annoying, depending on the actor, and the direction, while not bad, is pretty unambitious. Instead, the movie's faults lie in its very skewed moral views, which seem to class 'goodness' as factors of gender and social standing (while perhaps not as overt, there IS a bit of a 'rich people are evil' subtext to this that feels rather clunky in how cliche it is, though that's still a distant second to the movie's pretty unsettling message about women.) Probably the biggest problem here is, the movie is asking its protagonist to choose between two options that, as the movie presents them, are both pretty horrible: Brice is well-meaning enough, but he's made so morally spotless as to be bland. Even Judith's attempts to revitalize their marriage are pretty readily shot down by him. It's hard NOT to blame her for feeling bored. At the same time, the only other option the movie gives her is a short-tempered sociopath, and she gets hints of this pretty early on. The entire time, the movie never seems to entertain the notion that neither of these two may actually be good for her, and instead treats her eventually winding up alone as losing it all. I realize Perry is very informed by a Christian background in his films, but in this case, the message he's sending is rather alarming - and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it a bit of a relief that people didn't buy into it.

Huh...this wasn't quite as venomous as I expected the write-up would be. Cause I'll be honest, this movie really is just...exasperating in how utterly repulsive the message it sends is.

Now then, before we get to the last REALLY problematic point in the spoiler guard, I'll say unto those who wish to avoid the spoilers: keep an eye out. Got two more reviews lined up for this week.

Till then!

aaaaaand there's Simon Pegg, so we all know what time it is.

As I said above, at a few points, this movie has some REALLY problematic messages. One of the biggies that I left out of the above discussion: the movie's, at best, INCREDIBLY dated view of HIV.

Actually, before I go into that, let me take a moment to talk about the movie's misfired climax (if you can call it that.) Through most of the movie, Norwood's character is there setting up for a big secret. She's clearly seen some demons in her past, but remains mostly quiet about them for the bulk of the movie. It's only at the end, when Perry decides to reveal that her big reason to be in this movie is to be a human Chekhov Gun and reveal that Harley has HIV. Now, THIS is the big reveal:
not the fact that he's abusive asshole with a history of substance abuse - who she blames herself for staying with, I might add - but the big reason to get Judith away is because of the HIV. This leads to Brice's one attempt at genuine human emotion in the whole movie as he goes to get Judith, in a a drive sequence that is surprisingly lacking in urgency. When he gets there, he finds Harley passed out and Judith with several bruises. What does he do? Where is the movie's righteous indignation? He wakes up Harley, throws the two of them through a window, and punches him a few times before Norwood intervenes. That's it. They just sort of leave Harley there, free to do this to one or more other women. It's a rather limp climax that only serves to further remind us how morally unimpeachable Brice is supposed to be, and just how much Judith has screwed herself up.

Of course, this isn't to say Judith gets any sort of redemption. Remember how I said this movie has a dated view of HIV? Yep, Judith gets it (fun fact - apparently in the original stage version of this, that never happens - which means Perry decided to go back and add that to the film version.)
...and yes, this carries with it the INCREDIBLY uncomfortable implication that HIV is a punishment. Both for Judith and seeming to suggest that's the only consequence Harley's actions will reap.
In a movie made in 2013.
Yeeeeeeeah. Ten years ago, that would be an INCREDIBLY tasteless message. Twenty years ago, that would be an incredibly tasteless message. Even thirty years ago, while perhaps not AS badly received, that'd still be kind of a horrible message to send, and given how the disease was seen in the early 80s, it would come with a whole boatload of OTHER uncomfortable implications. Point is - this is just a really, really, REALLY horrible statement to be making about a disease that, to this day, is still pretty damn controversial.

Of course, this whole movie is a veritable rubber band ball of uncomfortable implications already. So it feels weird to call this particular point out - though it is probably the most overtly "WHOA! STOP THE CAR!" part of the heap of messages.

It just further adds to the overall conclusion I find myself making about this movie. It's a weakly made movie that paints in overly broad, simplistic brush strokes, to give us a message that is, at best irresponsible, at worst, downright reprehensible. On finally seeing this movie for myself, I'm genuinely amazed it didn't become an even bigger controversy when it came out than it did. Because, again, while I respect what Perry does for black actors as a whole, this message REALLY needs to get called out. In an industry where Antichrist gets Lars von Trier essentially barred from Cannes for its supposed misogyny (I've already said my piece on that matter,) the fact Perry is presumably avoiding much consequence for a film like this is kind of surprising.

Okay, maybe that last part's getting a bit touchy. Sorry. It's just...this movie's message is REALLY dubious, and I'm surprised it didn't invoke more anger on release than it did.

I suppose I can't say the entire experience was a wash though. While this movie in and of itself is fairly vile in what it has to say for itself, what it has to say for Perry is fascinating, in a horrifying sort of way. I'm not sure it's something we'll be seeing explored any time in the near future, but I'd be lying if I said that I'm not kind of looking forward to the idea that, sometime in the further off future, someone will try to explore the issues this man seems to be trying to work out through his plays and films. Cause after seeing this, and hearing about some of his other films, it DOES feel like he has some unresolved personal issues that are bleeding into his projects, and if this movie is any indication, they are some pretty volatile ones.

Okay, we're getting into some dicey waters here, so I'm just gonna dial this back now. Sorry, this movie just...yeah. It's a particularly problematic film, but it's also uniquely problematic. It takes what would otherwise just be a generally weak and forgettable movie, and makes it memorable for all the wrong reasons by way of its incredibly unsettled world view.

With this, I think the bar's been set kind of high for the next few years as inappropriate Valentine's viewing goes.
...God, I never thought I'd hear myself say that after last year's ISOYG double feature.

Till next time, folks.

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