No one keeps the pot boiling like Tyler Perry, whose third feature in 12 months recycles familiar ingredients according to his own unique formula, serving up a lip-smacking, finger-snapping sudser about two strong-willed Southern matriarchs — one black, the other white — who set off for some cross-country bonding while their ungrateful offspring act up at home. In the prolific helmer’s sixth and most polished film, “The Family That Preys,” a change of scenery and strong female roles for Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates could reach beyond his usual demographic, which tends to prefer the bigscreen versions of his familiar stage plays.
Beginning where most melodramas end, with a wedding, pic puts little stock in the institution of marriage. Filthy-rich Charlotte Cartwright (Bates) married into money, but not happiness, while her blue-collar best friend, Alice Pratt (Woodard), struggled to put eldest daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) through school by working long hours at a diner. Theirs is an unlikely but genuine friendship, with both widows determined to see their own children find better luck in love.
After Charlotte’s son, William (Cole Hauser), elopes without her permission, she offers to host Andrea’s wedding to working-class Chris (Rockmond Dunbar) on her estate — unaware that her silver-spoon son and Alice’s greasy-spoon daughter will use the occasion to rekindle an old flame.
Lingering only long enough to sow trouble, Perry cuts away before the wedding bells chime and rejoins the married couple several years later to reveal a very different dynamic in their relationship: Andrea frequently stays late at the office (where she works under William) and routinely snaps at Chris, a construction worker with dreams of running his own business. Perry, who established his own empire from the ground up, is both a dreamer and a realist, and Chris is one of those chivalrous male characters that recur throughout his work — the steadfast soul on whom mad black women can depend (Perry casts himself as Chris’ best friend and brother-in-law).
Dense to the point of being uninteresting, Chris is the last one to realize his wife is having an affair. By contrast, William’s wife (Kadee Strickland) is a shrewd operator who figures out just how to handle the situation — with a little advice from her prickly mother-in-law. Perry writes women like nobody else, imbuing his ladies with attitude, intelligence and a refreshing dose of self-confidence, right down to the supporting parts (both Taraji P. Henson and Robin Givens hold their own against Lathan’s uppity social climber).
While the soapy William-Andrea-Chris thread hits all the obligatory beats in the foreground, Charlotte and Alice supply a welcome dose of unpredictability as they embark on a road trip through Louisiana, Arizona and California. Bates and Woodard strike up a real dynamic, and pic gives the duo room to improvise, leading to one raucous scene after another as they Thelma-and-Louise it in a top-down convertible.
Perry has a tendency to overload his features, and “The Family That Preys” is no exception, reflecting the helmer’s view that the emotional roller-coaster of life can whip its passengers from outrage to exhilaration, from belly laughs to tears in an instant, making for an exhausting yet cathartic overall experience. The result seems ideal for auds who don’t see too many movies, cramming enough into one film to satisfy them until the next Perry pic comes out. (Meanwhile, the helmer strengthens his below-the-line team and attracts even bigger marquee talent with each successive project.)
As usual, morality prevails: Faith and family are key virtues, while lust and greed are duly punished, though Perry is getting better at disguising his manipulation. As in a well-orchestrated Shakespeare play, the characters’ fates are not so much predictable as incapable of sorting themselves out any differently. His dialogue may lack poetry, but he finds it in the Lee Ann Womack anthem “I Hope You Dance,” later covered by Gladys Knight over the end credits.