The devil is in the details — or perhaps under the bed sheets — in “Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” a ludicrous marital drama-cum-morality play from contemporary black cinema’s most prolific multihyphenate. Significantly lacking in star wattage (including Perry’s own), this sluggish, relentlessly downbeat portrait of a young couple in crisis should play well to Perry’s fanbase, but won’t draw anywhere near Madea-sized crowds at a very competitive Easter box office.
Like many of Perry’s films, this one originated as a stage play, though judging from the evidence onscreen, it’s hard to imagine it playing very far outside the dinner-theater circuit. Framed as the titular “confession,” related by a marriage counselor to her latest client, “Temptation” introduces childhood sweethearts Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Brice (Lance Gross), married for several years and living in Washington, D.C., where Brice works as a pharmacist in a small family drugstore (run by Yiddishe Momme Renee Taylor, whom some may initially mistake for Perry himself in whiteface and drag).
Judith, meanwhile, holds one of the more fanciful jobs in recent movie memory: “inhouse therapist” for Janice (Vanessa Williams), a high-end matchmaker with a Pepe Le Pew accent and a devoted minion (Kim Kardashian) whose primary responsibility seems to be castigating Judith for her sensible shoes and discount-store couture. (“Is your fashion icon Delta stewardess?”)
As if credibility were not already stretched to the breaking point, it soon emerges that, for all her supposed insight into relationship compatibility, Judith is a nice Christian girl who’s never been with any man except Brice. Which makes her the perfect catnip for Harley (Robbie Jones), a social-media billionaire who comes calling ostensibly to invest in Janice’s company, but quickly makes a bigger bid to get Judith into the sack.
From there, “Temptation” takes a sharp right turn toward the smugly moralistic. Harley isn’t just a snake in Judith’s middle-class Eden. With his Internet billions, he promises to set her up in the private marriage counseling practice she’s always dreamed of, proves chivalrous (nearly pummeling a cyclist who accidentally runs into Judith in a park) where Brice is cowardly, takes her for rides in his Ferrari and Rolls, and eventually entreats her on to his private plane — a one-way ticket to the Mile High Club. But fret not: Like a subsequent bathroom tryst cloaked in enough steam for a three-alarm blaze, this encounter has been skillfully designed not to offend Perry’s churchgoing base or endanger his PG-13 rating.
Love of money is the root of all evil, don’t we know, because the Bible says so and because the notion of Judith being tempted by a rich guy who isn’t also a total asshole would be far too complex for Perry’s reductive universe. So, having attained his prize, Harley stands revealed as a sadistic bully luring Judith into a decadent underworld of very bad behavior (evidenced by a throbbing techno rave party that’s like Perry’s answer to the masked ball from “Eyes Wide Shut”).
In the interest of padding the running time to nearly a full two hours, Perry also adds a second woman-in-distress subplot involving a mysterious new pharmacy assistant (Brandy Norwood) on the run from something — or someone — in her troubled past. Less mysterious is the true identity of the film’s unnamed narrator, who leaves the listener of her story suitably traumatized, but with no clear moral to take away, save perhaps: Listen to your mother and you won’t end up getting divorced, or getting an STD, or both.
Perry previously took on the subjects of marriage, infidelity and the hard work of sustaining relationships with far more nuance in his 2007 dramedy “Why Did I Get Married?,” in which the characters were reasonably three-dimensional and had some semblance of inner lives. Here, they’re mere puppets on Perry’s strings, and impossible roles for the actors. Gross, in particular, spends most of the movie projecting all the assertiveness of a teacup chihuahua, only to finally rise to the occasion when the script needs him to, his dearly beloved poised on the threshold of damnation. What more, really, can one say about a movie in which Kim Kardashian is the single most believable thing on screen?
Consistent with most of Perry’s films, craft contributions are adequate but undistinguished, with occasional overhead shots of metro D.C. adding a dollop of location flavor to otherwise obvious Georgia soundstage shooting.
Reviewed at AMC Empire 25, New York, March 28, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.
A Lionsgate release presented with TPS of a TPS/Lionsgate production. Produced by Tyler Perry, Ozzie Areu, Paul Hall. Executive producers, Michael Paseornek, Mike Upton.
Directed, written by Tyler Perry, based on his stage play “The Marriage Counselor.” Camera (Deluxe color, HD, widescreen), Alexander Gruszynski; editor, Maysie Hoy; music, Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Joel C. High; production designer, Eloise C. Stammerjohn; art director, Gentry L. Akens, II; set decorator, Dane Moore; costume designer, Johnetta Boone; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Chris Durfy; re-recording mixers, Joe Barnett, Marshall Garlington; assistant director, Chip Signore; second unit director, Paul Hall; casting, Kim Taylor-Coleman.