Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
Judith knows a lot about relationships. And she should. She wants to be a marriage counselor, after all.
At the moment she's putting her master's degree in counseling to work for a prestigious matchmaking service in Washington, D.C., where she's designed a questionnaire to judge compatibility between clients. She's also been married for six years herself, to her childhood sweetheart, Brice. So you'd think that if anyone could see danger walking through her door, it'd be Judith—especially since the embodiment of that danger was nice enough to fill out her detailed questionnaire.
But danger is a funny thing, particularly when it comes in the guise of a young, handsome and charismatic tech tycoon named Harley. From the moment he slithers into Judith's office, he tosses compliments like flower petals: how pretty she is, how bright she is, how lucky her husband is. Does he know? Harley asks her, in soft sentences, in passionate looks, in every brush of his hand against her skin. Does he know how lucky he is? Does he treat you like a queen? 'Cause that's how I'd treat you.
Even though Judith has been perfectly happy with her marriage ... until now, she begins to wonder how happy she really is. And she's suddenly not so sure.
Judith knows a lot about relationships—except, unfortunately, her own.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Many of Tyler Perry's films are morality plays, and Temptation is perhaps as "moral" as Perry gets. Indeed, the movie is a story within a story, told as a cautionary tale by a marriage counselor to a would-be adulteress who's flirting with an affair amid second thoughts about her marriage. From the get-go, then, we're meant to root for childhood sweeties Brice and Judith. Both have modest ambitions. Neither are anywhere close to their goals, but they're young and devoted to each other. Judith, in particular, takes care of her hubby in every time-honored, old-fashioned way you can think of.
But most marriages eventually slip into a comfortable routine—a routine one spouse or the other can become quietly dissatisfied with. That's what happens here. Brice forgets Judith's birthday (for the second year in a row). He doesn't woo her like he used to. That's not positive, of course—except in the context of this cautionary tale. Perry suggests that if Brice had just remembered to send Judith some flowers on her birthday, Harley might've never gotten his hooks into her. And it's a reminder to all of us—husbands and wives—to treasure our spouses.
Judith is a complex, ultimately tragic character. Despite Brice's inattention, she resists Harley's advances for a long time (even if she could've done more to stop those advances altogether or made better choices to stay out of temptation's way). She tries, repeatedly, to tell Harley she's committed to her husband—a boundary that the film's crafty agent of temptation repeatedly slides around. And while she makes some very poor decisions, Judith understands, underneath it all, that she's lost her way. The movie never lauds her choices, and each misstep informs the broader, moral narrative.
Elsewhere, Judith's mother (Sarah) is a devout Christian (more on that below) who senses her daughter is falling away and who does her best to bring her baby back into the righteous fold.
Melinda—a woman working at Brice's pharmacy and recovering from her own deep relational trauma—comforts Brice when he feels as though he's lost Judith for good. But when a heartbroken Brice momentarily looks for an altogether different sort of comfort from her, she unmistakably pushes him away. "What are you doing?" Melinda says. "We're not attracted to each other."
If only Judith could've done the same with Harley.
Perry often infuses his movies with explicitly Christian values, and Temptation is more explicit than most. Often these values are exemplified by Judith's mother, who's given surprisingly deft treatment here. When we look at her through the eyes of the increasingly worldly Judith, she appears almost comical and judgmental in her black-and-white faith. And yet, as the story's arc progresses, we see that Sarah has the clearest understanding of anybody.
Sarah raised Judith as a God-honoring Christian from the time she was a little girl, taking her to church "five days a week and twice on Sundays." We're told she gave her blessing for Judith to marry Brice because, she figured, it was "God's will." And for a while, the lessons stick. Judith reminds Brice that she fulfills her mother's definition of "wifely duties" reasonably well (though there's some discussion about whether they have sex "three times a week, just like the Bible says").
But when Sarah comes for a visit, she realizes just how far Judith's slipped from the faith. Neither her daughter nor Brice go to church. They don't say grace before meals. She wonders whether Judith is working with "demons," and she (rightly) mistrusts Harley's character and intentions. When Judith insists that Harley's a nice, successful guy, Sarah says, "That don't mean nothing if he don't know the Lord." The more Sarah realizes just how far Judith's really fallen, the more stridently spiritual she becomes. "God's not pleased with this, daughter," she says.
Judith eventually leaves Brice but comes back to their apartment to pick up her laptop, where she finds her mother and other women praying fervently for the prodigal daughter. And when she sees Judith and Harley walk in, it's clear Sarah believes her prayer has been answered.
And perhaps it has been, in that Sarah has a chance to confront the interloper who's seducing her daughter. Sarah actually calls Harley Satan, and Harley throws the woman down—then pulls Judith away when she tries to help her mother. And as the plot moves toward it's conclusion, Harley's deceptive, manipulative and self-serving ways make Sarah's comparison seem more and more apt.
One aside: Sarah tells Brice that Harley could stand to have his "a‑‑ whupped." When Brice expresses shock that Sarah cursed, she says, "That's the King James Version."
Harley asks Judith why, on the matchmaking questionnaire she's written, there's nothing about sexual compatibility. That's easy, Judith answers: As a Christian, she doesn't believe in sex before or outside of marriage. Harley finds the notion preciously antiquated. "How would you know how sexually compatible you are when you have nothing to compare it to?" he asks suggestively.
Harley tells her that sex should be spontaneous and wild, "like animals." That description sparks something in Judith, whose physical relationship with her husband has grown perhaps a bit boring and predictable. When she subsequently corners Brice in the kitchen and demands (while growling) to make love to him like an animal, he rejects the notion—saying they really should just stick with their normal routine.
Harley wears Judith down with a steady patter of flirtatious, inappropriate come-ons. And when Judith finally capitulates, she's arguably as much a victim as an accomplice. She's also groggy with drink when the tech tycoon forces himself on her in his private plane. She tries to resist, hitting him as he kisses her and as he tries to slide his hand up her dress. Harley pulls away. "Now you can say you resisted," he tells her. And he's read the situation correctly: All reluctance gone, Judith acquiesces when he moves in to start kissing her again.
We see that encounter in flashback—a blur of kissing that mostly focuses on faces and bare shoulders. Later, the couple again has sex, this time in a candle-surrounded bathtub, where their sexual moments are mostly obscured by thick steam. Harley also pulls Judith into the back of a luxury car where they presumably have sex again. And we see the two of them kiss and caress passionately several other times.
We see Brice, wearing just his boxers, brandishing a guitar as he sings a silly song to woo his wife once more. The two wind up in bed together, kissing and laughing before the camera leaves. They talk (nonspecifically) about a sexual "trick" they perform on special occasions.
Judith wears revealing, body-hugging clothes at times. Other women wear suggestive, cleavage-baring outfits. Judith comments on how snugly one coworker's outfit clings to her. Brice and Harley are both seen shirtless.
Mrs. Chapman, an older woman who works with Brice at the pharmacy, speculates that Melinda is a lesbian. "Does it matter?" Brice asks. "No," Mrs. Chapman admits, fluffing her hair. "I don't think that there's anything between us, but people talk." (Later, Melinda shoots down Chapman's speculation.)
Judith jokingly compares her boss, Janice, to a "pimp." Janice blithely sends Judith to New Orleans with Harley. "Don't compromise yourself, but flirt," she advises. When Harley tells Janice that he likes to find his women the "old-fashioned way," she says, "Oh, you like to pay!"
It's eventually revealed that Harley was previously married to Melinda, who contracted HIV from him because of his promiscuity. Judith ends up with HIV as well.
Harley's questionnaire reveals that he has a "mean streak," which proves to be true. He threatens a bicyclist who accidentally runs into Judith on a sidewalk; he pushes Judith's mother down violently (injuring her leg); he severely beats Judith herself. The camera watches Harley strike Judith just once, but later we find her lying (clothed) in a bathtub, her face bruised and bloody. She's injured so severely she can't walk.
We later learn that Melinda is still terrified of her ex-husband because of his physical abuse. She says he tried to kill her, and when she walks home from work one night, she immediately grabs a baseball bat in her apartment, clearly worried he could be there. When Brice sees what condition Judith's in because of Harley, he beats him up; the two crash through a glass window, and Brice pummels the guy mercilessly until he's pulled away.
Crude or Profane Language
Two s-words. Close to 10 uses of "a‑‑," a half-dozen uses of "d--n." We hear a smattering of these words: "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused four or five times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Harley snorts cocaine and encourages Judith to do the same—and she's sniffing and high for much of the latter stages of the movie. (It's clear what they're doing, but the camera never actually shows them inhaling the stuff.) Characters also drink wine, champagne and beer. We hear about the virtues of Valium.
Other Negative Elements
Janice isn't above subtly capitalizing on Harley's obvious attraction to Judith by luring him into investing in the matchmaking enterprise.
Tyler Perry's films are sometimes criticized for their melodrama, their penchant for telling straightforward stories with a straightforward purpose. And, undeniably, critics have a point. Let's just say his films will never do well at the Cannes Film Festival. So as a guy who appreciates subtlety and complexity in film, I have to admit that I walk away from most of Perry's films somewhat unsatisfied.
But I also appreciate—and, if you're reading this, I'd assume you do too—movies that have a real clarity of purpose. Especially a moral purpose. Movies that aren't meant just to entertain, but to nudge us toward thinking more deeply about our own lives and perhaps teach us something along the way.
Temptation is that kind of movie, a tragedy of sorts with a bittersweet ending. We see a young wife fall hard and pay for the falling. We learn that while God is love and grace is real, our rebellious choices may still exact a heavy price. All of that makes this a hard movie to watch at times—partly because of its sensual and briefly violent content, partly because of where it all inexorably leads.
But in the end, Temptation accomplishes exactly what I suspect Perry wanted it to: I went home and, though the hour was late, I gave my sleeping wife a kiss on the forehead and told her I loved her. And that I always will.