Writer-director Tyler Perry has shined up another 16-ton anvil of subtlety for “Temptation,” a scold-y, finger-wagging morality tale that uses fear and shame to browbeat married women into toeing the line and behaving themselves.
And really, who better to shill for the institution of marriage than 43-year-old bachelor Perry, who uses homosexuality as a punch line (or symbol of evil decadence) and HIV as a cheap plot gimmick?
Besides being a cautionary tale told with all the finesse of a U.S. Army training film about the horrors of syphilis, “Temptation” qualifies as science fiction, since it takes place in two parallel universes: One is the recognizable world where adults have career and relationship issues, and the other is the Tyler Perry–verse of convenient coincidence, abrupt character shifts and pat homilies.
(It’s also a place where people pursue jobs like pharmacist and therapist armed only with bachelor’s degrees, but that’s another issue.)
Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Brice (Lance Gross) are childhood sweethearts who have left their tiny Southern hamlet to pursue their dreams in Washington, D.C.: She wants to be a marriage counselor and he has dreams of owning his own small-town drugstore. This apparently entails working for slumming TV stars, since Judith toils at a millionaire-matchmaking service run by Vanessa Williams (whose awful French accent, thankfully, winds up being intentional) and Brice pushes pills for a loud and brash Renee Taylor.
The serpent in this upright, God-fearing couple’s Garden of Eden is Harley (Robbie Jones), an internet mogul whose plans of investing in the dating service turn into a dogged pursuit of Judith’s affections; attentive where Brice is neglectful, encouraging of her ambitions where her husband advises patience, the slick, wealthy Harley is soon turning her head. (Harley dismisses Brice as “pretty regular,” which might be more convincing if it didn’t take place between two scenes in which a shirtless Gross displays his male-model physique.)
Soon, Judith is ditching her sensible shoes and dowdy ensembles for the highest heels and the tightest dresses — under the advisement of co-worker Ava (Kim Kardashian, as nasal and awful an actress as you might imagine) — and in best fallen woman fashion, Judith’s first taste of alcohol leads quickly to succumbing to Harley’s advances, and not even her literally-thumping-a-bible mother Sarah (Ella Joyce) can keep her on the path to righteousness.
Perry’s portrayals of good and evil couldn’t be more cartoonish, from Judith and Brice’s cozy apartment, in a building that might as well be called the Integrity Arms, to the adulterous bathtub romp that’s so steamy that you can barely see the lovers at all.
Smollett-Bell (whose first claim to fame was her childhood starring role in “Eve’s Bayou”) creates an interesting character at first, but by the time Perry has turned Judith into a boozy, coked-up caricature with smudged eyeliner, there’s little the actress can do to avoid matching the film’s generally ludicrous tone.
Perry deserves credit for consistently making movies about black women’s lives (and thus offering opportunities for many great, underemployed actresses), but he just can’t stop himself from shouting to the back row when a whisper would suffice. Even when compared to his other big-screen efforts, “Temptation” is a deafening sermon.