Tyler Perry’s best quality as a dramatist is his sensitivity to relational difficulties. His most compelling films understand how the stability of a healthy relationship can be threatened by complacency and indifference, and they’re at their most poignant when they articulate the frustration of seeing a loved one slip away, of feeling a good thing deteriorate for lack of care or trying. Last year’s Good Deeds, his strongest film to date, showed an uncommon maturity in dealing with the breakup of its central relationship, a long-term engagement which ends after both partners decide, quite amicably, that neither are capable of satisfying the other’s needs. Their agreement to separate is mutually beneficial, and the film treats it as an ideal resolution to both characters’ respective emotional arcs; without resorting to vilifying one or the other, the film extricates both from a situation to which it’s clear they weren’t suited. For a mainstream romantic drama, this is a fairly remarkable narrative turn, making Good Deeds considerably more empathetic and, frankly, adult than the majority of its contemporaries.
For much of its running time, Temptation seems similarly perceptive, establishing over the course of its first two acts that it is attuned to the nuances of a long-term relationship in the process of dissipation. Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), an aspiring marriage counselor paying her dues at an upscale matchmaking agency, feels vaguely dissatisfied with her loving but unexceptional husband, Brice (Lance Gross), a handsome pharmacist with a decidedly conservative sensibility. Her conspicuous disenchantment makes her, of course, the ideal mark for insidious playboy charmer Harley (Robbie Jones), a sexy billionaire of quite obviously unscrupulous intentions. The prospective love affair unfolds very gradually, and Perry, for his part, capably illustrates both the stagnation of Judith’s marriage and the appeal of abandoning its sanctity; by the time the forbidden romance is indulged in carnally, one feels—and, moreover, wholly believes—the gravity of the action.
But then, with little warning, things veer into markedly stranger territory, as the decadent, almost classic melodrama of the film’s first two acts suddenly gives way to full-blown theatrical maximalism, with erotic liaisons erupting into garish displays of unholy abandon. The film quickly becomes a catalogue of aestheticized depravity, with Judith’s cautionary-tale descent into hedonism expressed as a thick slice of exploitation cinema. From exaggeratedly steamy sex sessions to car windows smashed in rage, from laser-lit dens of nightlife sin to last-minute soap revelations (including an honest-to-goodness AIDS scare), Perry’s Temptation appears across its last act more like Brian De Palma’s Temptation, relishing the excess to such a pronounced degree that it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be taken ironically. Like De Palma, Perry embellishes every sensual detail, making a real show of lust and caution, blowing up the emotion and the style in equal measure. It results in a bizarre sort of friction—one that’s very much jarring, but in a perverse way also rather mesmerizing—that simultaneously heightens the pleasure of the melodrama while severely reducing its credibility.
For better or worse, Temptation isn’t Good Deeds, though at its core it contains a similar honesty, its form is drastically wilder, careening into a stylistic ostentation at odds with both the heart of the material and the director’s body of work. Perry has never been an especially extravagant visual stylist, but he does have a tendency to depict on-screen romance with a warmth and intimacy that borders on sensual—particularly where the steam of a shower is involved. Here that quality comes to practically define the aesthetic, pushed to an extreme that, once the prospect of violence enters the picture, makes it seem ripped from Dressed to Kill. (Because Temptation involves infidelity and stars black actors, it’s been compared by some critics to Obsessed, but in terms of look and feel it’s much closer to Obsession.) It’s never clear, however, whether these over-the-top embellishments are meant to encourage or discourage identification, and it’s hard to reconcile the conventional seriousness of the film’s first two acts with the ostensible absurdity of its last act. If the point is to expand an already Christian-themed morality play to suitably biblical proportions, the gambit isn’t so effective. And if the point, as it often is with De Palma, is to both relish and critique its own showy artifice (perhaps it’s a demented vision of infidelity’s worse-case scenario?), it isn’t apparent how that meta-strategy relates to the apparent earnestness of the beginnings. But in any case, the last-act foray into veritable camp is certainly provocative, a quality with value of its own.