The Family That Preys, and his fifth overall, is something of an outlier - it is one of the small number of films in his career not based upon a stage play, and it is the first of two (so far) to completely lack so much as a whisper of comic relief - and yet somehow I find myself wanting to anoint it as quintessential Perry: this may have less to do with the content of the film, or even with its execution, and more with its tone, for after the relatively straightforward Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns, The Family That Preys is a return to the insane Perry of yore, the Perry who made such fearlessly strange and dysfunctional movies, the Perry who collided genres and tones without giving half a shit if it worked, along the way to providing a hectoring moral lesson mired in social observation that made up in absolute sincerity what it lacked in insight or basic sense.
And yet even then, The Family That Preys is an odd duck: an attempt to compress everything about human experience into 109 minutes, with all the depth and wisdom of the man for whom the shrieking caricature Madea is the pinnacle of matriarchal authority. It's sort of an awful movie, but it is the kind of awful I could watch all day and find something new about it every single time: whatever its other sins, the movie cannot be accused of wanting for ambition or scope, either in its narrative content or its style, and the enthusiasm with which Perry blends subplots guarantees that at worst, it's never slow or boring.
The film opens with a prologue introducing us to most of the important players: primarily a pair of friends from way back, diner owner Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard) and multinational executive Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates), and their children. Alice's daughters are Pam (Taraji P. Henson) and Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), the latter of whom is getting married on this day to construction worker Chris (Rockmond Dunbar); Charlotte's only offspring is William (Cole Hauser), whose strained relationship with his mother is demonstrated when she points out that she wouldn't be obliged to spend huge sums of money for her friend's daughter's wedding if her own flesh-and-blood hadn't elope with his now-wife Jillian (KaDee Strickland).
The bulk of the movie takes place four years later, after Pam has herself wed Chris's buddy and co-worker, Ben (Perry himself), the both of whom are employed on a project being built by the Cartwrights' company. Money is tight for Alice, and Pam is doing all she can to help out, but while Andrea, currently working as an executive just underneath William, has a job that affords her and Chris an absurdly well-appointed house, she's pointedly unwilling to help her family out in any significant way. And that is roughly as far as I can push the plot synopsis, because from here the whole edifice starts to bog down in an insoluble nest of subplots and intrigues, a whole new narrative thread getting introduced with virtually every new scene. And this is part of what makes the film so damn magical: it feels almost as if, in the six months since Meet the Browns, Perry had committed himself to recording every single idea that crossed his mind for even a second and finding a space for it in the new original story he was developing. Thus do we end up with a movie that tries to have something to say about parent-child relationships, marriage, class, race, corporate politics, religious faith, the ties of female friendship, and personal ambition in times of economic weakness.
And, to an extend, it does have something to say about all of these, but for the most part, theme is devoured whole by the overwhelming melodrama of the piece: whatever else the movie wants to say about human experience, the actual theme of the movie is that Andrea and William are both earth-shatteringly awful human beings, which is part of what makes it so easy to call it way ahead of time that they are having an affair; in Perry's world, evil attracts evil, as we have seen many times, but especially in Madea's Family Reunion. Not only does this imbalance the tone of the movie, it even stepson whatever messages Perry meant to express, sometimes: one would expect that as the only film in the director's canon with lead characters played by white actors, The Family That Preys would have something insightful to say about race relations, except that the only person ever allowed to call attention to this fact is Andrea, who mentions it at one of her bitchiest moments in the whole picture (hell, maybe that's Perry's point: that only hilariously terrible people call attention to racial differences). Whatever class argument the film is making falls apart for similar reasons: that, and the fact that based on Pam and Alice's "impoverished" lives, it seems that by this point, Perry had forgotten what poverty actually looks like.
On the other hand, even as the film slaloms through its hugely contrived turns, on the way to landing in a nest of last-minute dramatic ass-pulls including a colossally unfair reveal about a character about whom we should not have such a huge spot of ignorance that late in the game, it still has something of the human about it: and as should not be surprising by this point, that has a lot to do with the cast, the best that Perry had assembled by this point. Woodard, Bates, and Henson are all reliable more often than not (especially Woodard), Lathan does fine with a semi-unplayable role, and Robin Givens nails a small but important part. The men, perhaps unsurprisingly, are at a uniformly lower level than all the women; buy give or take an Idris Elba, Perry is not typically as interested in his male characters, even the ones he's playing. Cole Hauser is especially bad, possibly because he is Cole Hauser and thus the second he appears onscreen, smiling his unctuous smile, we're waiting on the moment tha the tries to set his mother on fire.
Admittedly, the presence of characters played basically like human beings does not make the ludicrous script any more sensible; and most of The Family That Preys is arresting for being so willfully overwrought, not for being convincing or affecting, though it is almost certainly more appealing than the other Perry movies which are also fascinating for how badly they don't work, in that it is not half as grotesque as his comedies; melodramatic drama works in a way that melodramatic drag-based farce doesn't.
The one exception, and the reason that at the point we have currently reached, The Family That Preys is my favorite Perry movie, is the dynamic between Alice and Charlotte. Woodard and Bates are two great actresses, but this is the one point in the movie that doesn't solely rely on the acting: in fact, Perry actually brought some sensitivity and a feeling of fun to his casting of the women's relationship. They banter, they let silences hang, they let secrets be weaselled out in due course, and generally act like a pair of people who have known each other for 30 years and have had nothing but the highest regard for each other in that whole time. At a certain point, they go on a roadtrip, and leave the other characters and their insane soap opera behind, and here, the film sings: Woodard's intelligent, cautious friendliness and Bates's bouncy humanism click and give the movie a beating heart and a sense of life and for just a little bit, the movie speaks some very real truths about friendship and long life. It's a little, but it's something.
Not as much as if the film had lived up to its title and been about a family of serial cannibals, but something.