Why stay in your lane when you can veer into other roadways with your own turbo-charged vehicles? With “A Fall from Grace,” mogul Tyler Perry swerves back and forth between his usual woman-centered melodrama and a quasi-thriller. Shot over just five days in late 2019, the writer-director-actor’s first made-for-Netflix feature hits trademark beats that might satisfy loyalists but are sure to make others wince or opt out.
As is his intriguing way, however, Perry delivers some grace notes with the casting. Crystal Fox is especially compelling when playing the title character in her jailhouse state, defeated and shell-shocked. Over the years, a number of stellar female actors have tithed their time to the church of Tyler Perry. Here it’s Perry regulars Cicely Tyson, in an understated but pivotal turn, touching for its frailty (the character’s, not Ms. Tyson’s), and Phylicia Rashad as Grace’s deeply supportive best friend, Sarah.
We first learn about Grace Waters from incessant chatter on the car radio as 26-year-old public defender Jasmine Bryant heads to the office. Bresha Webb plays the reluctant lawyer who lands the Waters case. And it’s Jasmine’s journey as much as it is the accused’s.
Earlier, Jasmine’s impossibly handsome and tender husband Jordan (this is Tyler Perry after all) crawled into bed after a particularly hard night. In the opening scene, we saw the young police officer (Matthew Law) almost talk a woman off a roof. Almost. Crying and raging about her husband, her savings, she asked bitterly, “How could I be so stupid?”
No matter which channel Jasmine turns to, she can’t escape callers and talk-radio hosts riffing not on the death of a wife wronged but on the guilt of the local woman who murdered her husband. More than a few female callers demand Grace’s swift execution.
Perry cast himself as the heavy here. Not in the hefty, comedic Madea sense (though the setup is at times laughable and its execution a tad lazy), but as Rory, the grouchy head of an overtaxed public defender’s office. He hands Jasmine the case. Known for her plea-bargaining skills, Jasmine has yet to try a case. Rory’s hope: save on scant resources and send the media circus to its next stop.
After all, Grace admitted guilt from the start, though the violence of her husband’s demise doesn’t fit her history as a loving grandmother, a faithful churchgoer, a long-time bank employee. Already jaded — Jasmine calls her clients “murderers and thieves” — she can’t get past the facts of her client’s biography. Because Perry borrows from many a genre, Jasmine’s two colleagues (Angela Marie Rigsby and Donovan Christie Jr.) are ready to pitch in.
Consider “A Fall From Grace” then a why-she-done-it? With a little how’d-she-do-him-in tossed in. If you’re at all intrigued by the creaky enterprise, the flashback unfolding of the romance between savvy but smitten divorcée Grace and the smooth, considerate art photographer Shannon (Mehcad Brooks) may prove diverting. It might help, too, if you were raised on a diet of daytime soap rhythms and dialogue. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rashad’s role as Grace’s friend and champion Sarah starts to take shape as Grace recounts her tale. Whatever quirks she has, a little fussy, a little solicitous, are perfectly in keeping with her church-lady pieties. On the other hand, Brooks’ downshift from kind to cruel has become a Perry type: a good-looking man doing very ugly things. That said, it’s hard not to love that the act of smoking cigarettes signals Shannon’s villainy.
Fox inhabits emotionally shut-down and guarded well. (The actress played mom to Zoë Kravitz’s character in “Big Little Lies.”) Like Jasmine, it’s hard not to pull for her — gullibility, admission of guilt, and all. But the difference between Grace’s physical demeanor in the prison and her too invigorated voiceover as she recounts to Jasmine her falling in love and her “fall” is just plain silly. So, too, is the way the media circus at the movie’s start takes a long coffee break during the middle portion of the movie.
“A Fall From Grace” isn’t consequential moviemaking. This won’t come as a surprise to plenty of Perry’s detractors and maybe Perry doesn’t have to aim for that. He still has a niche — woman of a certain age — reflected to some degree in the female stars who continue to do surprisingly nuanced work with him. But as young African American creatives continue to come into their own and hone the craft (see Numa Perrier’s “Jezebel” streaming on the same platform), Perry should want to up his game. He certainly has the resources.