Lots of movies end with a wedding. The Family That Preys begins with one. But the vows are barely spoken before Andrea, the bright-but-snooty bride, mentally tosses new hubbie Chris (a well-meaning construction worker) overboard and starts eyeing rich and handsome William Cartwright.
Four years later, both Chris and Andrea work for William—Chris on a Cartwright construction site, Andrea as the company's financial wizard. Clueless about Andrea's sideline infatuation-turned-affair, Chris is dumbfounded to discover that most of her co-workers don't even know she's married. Then he uncovers a secret bank account in his wife's name, loaded with nearly $300,000. (At this point you're just waiting for the sparks to start flying. And they do.)
There's no such friction between William's and Andrea's respective mothers—best friends and the multiplex's new Odd Couple. Charlotte Cartwright is a flinty, fabulously wealthy businesswoman—the real power on the Cartwright throne. Alice Pratt owns and runs a modest diner. Both are pretty satisfied with their lots in life—that is until Charlotte buys an ancient blue convertible and convinces Alice to accompany her on a no-holds-barred road trip west.
These two stories don't have much to do with each other—except everybody's related in a roundabout way. Oh, and William has plans to oust dear old Ma from her director's chair before she returns.
It's the kind of soap opera one expects to have question-raising teasers attached to it:
Announcer: Will Chris ever discover the truth? (Da-da-da-dummmm!) Will Charlotte reveal her dark secret? (Da-da-da-dummmm!) Who is that mysterious transient Alice feeds at her diner? (Da-da-da-dummmm!) And why does he keep giving her investment advice?
Tune in for these answers and more as we review ... The Family That Preys!
(Cue organ crescendo, cut to commercial.)
Whatever her faults—and she has many—Charlotte is a shrewd judge of character. She picked Alice to be her best friend, didn't she?
Alice is the film's moral center. Though she apparently struggles to break even every week, she continues to work an honest day for honest pay. And she always encourages Nick (he's the transient our friendly announcer referenced) to come in and have a bite to eat, no matter how smelly he is. She paraphrases the Bible, telling her younger daughter, Pam, that we must be careful how we treat strangers. "You could be entertaining angels unawares."
She raised her kids to "love God and respect other people," and she tells wayward daughter Andrea, "You can't make yourself happy by bringing misery to other people."
When Charlotte makes an unexpected confession, Alice promises her that she'll always be there for her, like always.
Alice sings in the church choir. When Charlotte comes to listen one night, we see tears trickling down her face, moved by the music. "Alice," she asks, "do you think God forgives us for all our previous sins?" Alice explains that Jesus came down and sacrificed Himself for us on the cross for exactly that purpose.
Alice takes her Bible with her on the road trip, specifically carrying it with her into a strip club (Charlotte drags her in) and brandishes it at a male stripper who comes too close. She also throws annointing oil at one of them. When she sees Andrea in her wedding dress, she whispers quietly, "My baby. Thank you, Jesus."
Her faith is an integral part of her daily life and, as such, she has a desire to see her best friend, Charlotte, be saved. Eventually, Alice takes Charlotte's presumed salvation into her own hands, driving her friend to a riverside baptism, walking the lead-footed woman to the edge of the water and practically pushing her in.
Without a word, the preacher grabs Charlotte and dunks her under the muddy water.
Most evangelical Christians believe it takes more than getting wet to get saved, of course. (It's a heart thing, not a water thing.) But it's inspiring that this moment of spiritual significance is the only thing she really wants to do during their cross-country trek: She wants to see her friend baptized. (How many of us take the salvation of our friends so seriously?)
Sideways glances and barely whispered gossip is what mostly tips us off to Andrea and William's affair. We know it for sure when we see them kiss passionately in a darkened office. The two apparently rendezvous every Wednesday at a local hotel, but we enter that room just once, watching Andrea take off her shoes and talk to someone she believes is her lover coming in the door. (Turns out, it's William's wife.)
[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Andrea confesses the relationship and tells Chris that "their son" is actually a Cartwright—suggesting the affair had been going on nearly as long as Chris and Andrea's marriage. We learn that Andrea's own father (Alice's husband) took off with another woman himself. And Charlotte asserts that her husband bedded many other women during their marriage. (She fooled around, too, to make things fair.)
Believing William will divorce his wife and marry her, Andrea tells her mom, "This is not the '60s. It's how it's done now."
Believing that strength requires one to confront life and all of its travails with nary a whimper, Charlotte pitilessly orders her son's scorned wife to stop sobbing, stand up for herself and, essentially, take the cheating turkey for all he's worth.
"Make your demands," she says. "He'll listen. You hold all the cards."
That strip club I mentioned earlier? I'll note here that while none of the men are nude, but we do see them parading around, bare-chested and in fantasy-type get-ups. Charlotte stuffs bills into their outfits while Alice—mostly—averts her eyes.
Spouses kiss. A couple of conversations hint at sexual contact and attraction. Charlotte and Alice joke about Charlotte spending time "on her back" in the backseats of cars. Women sometimes wear tops or dresses that reveal quite a bit of cleavage.
There's not much violence, but what there is packs a wallop. When Chris finally understands that his wife is having an affair, he smacks her full in the face, hard enough to knock her over the diner counter and onto the floor.
Chris also hits William and almost pushes him off a high floor of a partly constructed building. In a rage, he knocks over a makeshift table, sending the top flying at a couple of construction workers.
[Spoiler Warning] We watch Charlotte take several medication bottles from her bathroom cabinet. And then in the next scene we hear that she's dead.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 10 uses each of "h---" and "d--n." "A--" clocks in at around five. "B--ch" makes an appearance. "Screw" is twice used in a sexual context. And God's name is uttered flippantly at least three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alice doesn't drink. Pretty much everybody else does. William's wife practically begs for a drink before Andrea's wedding. Pam's husband, Ben, tells Chris he's going to buy him booze so he can relax—even though Chris apparently had plenty to drink at his bachelor party the night before. William and his wife drink whiskey or bourbon after work, and Andrea pours herself some vodka. Ben pops open a beer. One woman, sipping a martini, is so inebriated that she lets slip details of Andrea and William's affair.
And Charlotte? Well, she drinks more than anybody. She asks for a bourbon while interviewing an executive for her business. She sips on a hurricane in New Orleans. She slams back multiple shots of tequila at a country bar. And it's suggested she's suffering from a hangover on the way to her forced baptism. After she's dunked, the first words out of her mouth are about needing more liquor.
Other Negative Elements
"My family has been known to prey on the weak," Charlotte says. And while some aspects of that strength-first-compassion-never attitude are condemned during the course of the story, others aren't.
Andrea shows a distinct lack of gratitude to Charlotte, who pays for her wedding. Andrea and her family holler a great deal at one another in the presence of Andrea's young child. Ben and Chris discuss playing poker. Charlotte, we learn, has been divorced three times. William unfairly fires Chris and Ben. Chris spends Andrea's "bonus money" without her knowledge.
I've long found it strange that, in a country where nearly 80 percent of the population says it believes in the Christian God, so few films acknowledge religion at all.
Writer/producer/director/musician/actor Tyler Perry must feel the same way.
"I'm not sure why no one wants to admit there's a viable audience out there that believes in God and wants to see a movie with their family," he told USA Today. "The demand is there. The supply is not."
Not that Perry is making "Christian" movies. But he is a Christian, and he does allow some of his characters to be so, too. They're flesh-and-blood believers you might meet on the street or at the grocery store, if not in your typical suburban, evangelical megachurch.
In fact, they're so flesh-and-blood that they're equal parts inspiring and disquieting. And Perry believes that's for the best:
"If more Christians showed their battle scars, people would be more inclined to believe that they can be born again," he told Christianity Today. "That's why I don't want to write stories with 'perfect Christians,' because it is so unreal, it is so untrue."
So here we have a movie selling tens of millions of dollars worth of tickets—in the secular marketplace—that talks about Jesus. We have a Christian protagonist who generally practices what she preaches. We have a story in which spiritual longing is acknowledged, destructive relationships are admonished and that ends, very sweetly, with Alice getting her just reward—a little time away from the diner. And it's even kinda entertaining.
Great movie, right? Rush right out and take the family to see it?
Well, no. All is not clean and squeaky in Perry's melodramatic worlds. Men hit women. And nobody says boo about it. Women cheat on men. And one of the heroines is an unapologetic, conniving lush who drags her Christian friend into bars and strip clubs and goes to her own baptism nearly kicking and screaming.
And then there's this—a line I'd frankly rather forget was spoken, but one that I'm unable to ignore.
"I have spent my entire life giving it away. I think I'm gonna keep the rest of it for me."
That's Alice talking, telling we moviegoers that she's earned the right to be selfish for a change.
Scripturally, there is something deeply wrong—something rather Andrea-like—about keeping the rest of it for me. It was Alice's willingness to give of herself that most separated her from everybody else.
We're told, as Christians, that we're storing up our reward in heaven. There's no promise of it being handed out on earth. And the Bible certainly never tells us that once we hit a certain point in our lives it's OK to "keep" stuff. It's really not ours to begin with. We, as Christians, are called to be givers, all of our lives. Jesus never gives us permission to shuck that responsibility.
I doubt that's the ultimate lesson Perry was trying to teach. In fact, I'd say what he really wanted to communicate is that life should be lived to fullest—and that God is part of that fullness. (His heavy use of Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" underscores that idea.)
But still, Alice's pronouncement—along with pages of problematic content—mar that seemingly sincere, solid message.