Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
Tyler Perry gets a lot less respect than he deserves. His Madea movies are one thing; we’re comfortable with thinking of him as a silly, cross-dressing minstrel. But as he digs deeper and deeper into melodrama, critics scorn him as unsophisticated and unsubtle. Unsubtle he may be, but Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor is anything but unsophisticated. The script comes across as exceptionally broad for an audience soaked in mainstream irony and cynicism, but the same can easily be said for great classic melodramas like Splendor in the Grass and Written on the Wind. And it’s these films that Perry tries to meld with his own gospel musical background, with Temptation his best attempt yet.
As the story begins, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Brice (Lance Gross) are a young married couple in their mid-twenties who have moved to Washington, D.C. from the small town they grew up in. They’re both good kids — Judith’s mother (Ella Joyce) was very active in their church and has instilled a strong moral sense into her — but anyone can be led astray. Brice has trained as a pharmacist, and he works in a small shop under a comic-relief cliché of a boss (Renée Taylor), with the hope of eventually taking over the business himself. Judith wants to be a marriage counselor, but for the time being she works for a Georgetown-based matchmaking service for the super-rich.
Temptation enters Judith’s life in the form of Harley (Robbie Jones), a fantastically wealthy computer mogul who needs to work closely with Judith to investigate adapting her methods to an online version. On top of being rich, Harley is sexy and energetic, and he pays attention to Judith in a way Brice has been neglecting. It doesn’t help matters that Judith’s boss (Vanessa Williams) suggests that it’s okay to bend one’s moral rules in the pursuit of success, and her co-worker (Kim Kardashian) encourages her to focus on superficialities rather than deeper values.
Judith starts slipping further and further under Harley’s influence, even as one red flag after another warns that this guy is bad news. Judith herself says you can learn a lot about someone from their past relationships, and then looks past Harley’s own ugly past when he puts the right slant on it. And then she ignores his violent overreaction when she accidentally bumps into a cyclist while jogging. Meanwhile, we have a present reminder of what lies ahead for Judith in the form of Melinda (Brandy Norwood), a new worker in Brice’s pharmacy, on the run from her own abusive ex.
The film is not without its sour notes; Williams’ French accent — despite lampshading it — is atrocious, and Kardashian is all but unwatchable. Taylor isn’t bad, but her character seems like an awkward attempt to inject a bit of levity into some very dark material. The dialogue can be clunky and blunt, and the arc is more or less predictable, but those are par for the course with the melodramas Perry is trying to imitate.
The film shines in its depiction of the relationship between Judith and Harley. Jones plays his part to the hilt, even looking a little reptilian, and his words offer a textbook case in how a predator like Harley gets inside his victims’ heads. He turns on the charm, spinning his temper as passion. He moves on to putting words into Judith’s mouth and turning up the pressure. By the time he rapes her — and I’m not going to weasel around calling the scene what it is — he has her primed to come back for more. And Smollett-Bell paints Judith’s descent across her face with a deft command of her shifting expressions.
And despite some clunky language, Perry’s screenplay is actually insightful and well-studied as a meditation on domestic violence and adultery. But its inspirations are clearly biblical and religious, and it’s hard to get over the knee-jerk reaction towards taking religion and religiously-inflected morals this seriously. Luckily, Tyler Perry shows no sign of letting that slow him down.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.