The Family That Preys

Tyler Perry has been growing as a filmmaker right before our eyes. His string of awful, simple-minded comedy-dramas was followed by this March’s “Meet the Browns,” which wasn’t half-bad, and now “The Family That Preys,” which also isn’t half-bad. The more films he makes, the better able he is to attract top-notch talent (a key in making the mawkish dialogue he writes palatable), and the better he gets at the mechanics of filmmaking. Practice makes perfect, after all.

“The Family That Preys” is less compelling than “Meet the Browns,” but one promising aspect jumps out: Except for a few moments early on, this film is not about what it’s like to be black in America. Most of the characters are black, and certainly that affects who they are, but the movie isn’t about those issues. I see this is a huge step forward for Perry, whose previous films tended to plunk the same notes over and over again.

There are two families preying here, the fabulously wealthy (and white) Cartwrights, and the striving (and black) Pratts. Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates) is a tough old Southern belle whose family’s corporation has made her rich and bored. Her long-time best friend, Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodard), runs a diner and is apparently content to be the non-rich half of the friendship. Charlotte’s son, William (Cole Hauser), runs the company and employs Alice’s daughter, Andrea (Sanaa Lathan), as his chief accountant. Andrea’s husband, Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), works for the Cartwrights, too, but as a construction worker on the company’s job sites. Chris’ best friend, Ben (Tyler Perry), is married to Andrea’s sister, Pam (Taraji P. Henson), who helps Mom at the diner.

Thus: Andrea and Chris make decent money (especially Andrea) but are unhappy because Andrea is too ambitious, while Pam and Ben are decidedly middle-class but happy and content.

Things intensify when Charlotte brings in Abigail Dexter (Robin Givens) to be the new C.O.O., and not her son, who Charlotte doesn’t think is qualified. William is angry. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Alice embark on a cross-country road trip for reasons that are supposed to be secret but that you will probably guess after Perry lingers too long on a dewy-eyed Charlotte one too many times. (“We can get a new memory card!” says Alice of their malfunctioning camera. “Oh, I wish it were that simple,” says Charlotte with great import and double-meaning.)

Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates are terrific, with their part of the movie feeling like another production altogether. The two veteran actresses have never worked together before, but their chemistry is like that of old friends. Their laughter at one another’s jokes and their compassion for each other feels genuine. These two give the film its heart.

Back home, the situation isn’t quite as rosy. Perry has a thing for making his actresses face off against each other like the women on “Dynasty,” growling their catty dialogue while melodramatic music plays in the background. The high-finance and high-emotion squabbles involving Andrea, Pam, and Abigail (plus the various menfolk) don’t do any of these performers any favors. As always, the villains are broad and cartoonish, while the good guys are saintly and heroic. Perry may not be dealing with race issues, but he still writes everything in black-and-white.

C+ (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, some mild sexuality and a face-slappin'.)