The best thing that could be consistently said about Tyler Perry’s prolific body of work is that he makes a recurring point of presenting well-to-do black professionals in the American upper class, a too-uncommon depiction of a minority already underrepresented on screen. The worst thing that Perry consistently does with said characters is subject them to lowest-common-denominator soap-opera scenarios involving infidelity, business scandals and spousal abuse.
Based on yet another one of his stage plays, “Tyler Perry's Temptation," adheres rather dully to that gear-grinding formula, as Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) helps millionaire matchmaker Janice (Vanessa Williams, with intentionally phony French accent) pair off the rich singles of Washington, D.C. When Zuckerberg-like social media maven Harley (Robbie Jones) comes walking in the door, he insists that he’s not looking for love, but rather an investment opportunity. Of course, he is single and he is loaded, and never mind that Judith is married to forgetful-but-nice childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Gross). One of them drives a red hot convertible; the other, a rusty old pick-up.
“It’s kind of sad when you can buy anything you want and have to beg for what you need,” Harley purrs, and Janice heeds this more than his later warning that his emotions can be a little too intense for the women in his life. This small-town simpleton, aroused by the mere possibility of kitchen sex, is already in too deep, and the best that can be said for “Temptation” is that the first half is a functioning (if exceedingly predictable) melodrama before devolving, just as predictably, into a cautionary cartoon.
It would be easier to fear for Judith’s poor soul if she didn’t treat her matchmaker work with the stern gravity of a forensic psychologist, and if Smollett-Bell demonstrated much range beyond a perpetual who-farted sneer and the requisite pout in a bathroom mirror. Watching her fall for Jones’ character is like watching Maude Flanders leave Ned for Ike Turner, only more tedious. They take baths so steamy that it’s impossible to see what’s so steamy between them. They join the mile-high club on his private jet with a questionable amount of consent. They share coke and spend their nights in bisexual dens of iniquity. Given Perry’s fondness for medium shots and a barely-there score, the would-be seediness of it all has never seemed so passionless and flat. At least when Chris Rock tackled such subject matter in “I Think I Love My Wife,” the comedian took his cues from Eric Rohmer and then added his wit on top of that.
“Temptation” can’t even rival the arch appeal of a “Fatal Attraction” knock-off like “Obsessed,” so beholden to its own jarring tonal shifts, transparent surprises and second-act sermons (courtesy of Judith’s mother, a literal reverend, as played by Ella Joyce). Why should it matter what makes Brice’s new co-worker (Brandy Norwood) so scared to leave the pharmacy at night when there’s a mint-stealing old biddy behind the counter crowing out, “I think she’s a lesbian... What if people think we’re a couple?!” Who’s to be surprised that the marriage counselor of the title isn’t really relating a story about her sister when addressing a desperate couple at the start of the picture? How can anyone be shocked when it’s revealed just who Brandy’s rich, abusive ex happens to be?
Perry’s emphasis on putting any chance for cat calls and guffaws above characterization or surprise continues to compromise his work, although probably not in his eyes. A lazy, lousy provocateur with a spiteful, morally superior worldview, he caters to an easily sated and eagerly self-righteous demographic, one which hardly seems fazed by the endlessly regressive nature of his material. (The HIV panic of the ‘80s still lurks when handy, while the last twenty minutes reek of shameful ‘50s newsreels. Actual line of dialogue: “I’m going to end this almost-affair and return to my husband!”) In his best film, 2010’s “For Colored Girls,” the strong female performances barely outnumbered the tone-deaf cliches. By that math, or any measure really, “Temptation” ranks among his worst.
[Note: This film originally shared the title of the play on which it's based, "Temptation: Confessions of a A Marriage Counselor," and that is how the title card reads on the version that is currently playing in theaters. However, the publicity firm representing the film recently sent an email informing outlets that the correct title is "Tyler Perry's Temptation." Until this matter is resolved more clearly, we can only suggest that – when buying tickets – you refer to the movie as "Spring Breakers."]