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By Stina Chyn | September 12, 2008

Writer, actor, producer, and director Tyler Perry has become synonymous with his stage-to-screen character Mable “Madea” Simmons, an outspoken, self-assured mother-hen type that keeps her brood in check. Perry has expanded on his material in the last three years with “Why Did I Get Married”, “Daddy’s Little Girls,” and “Meet the Browns”. “The Family That Preys” is the newest ensemble cast film that pokes around the glory and the muck of being human.

Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates) is the ruling matriarch of the Cartwright family as well as the family business. Alice (Alfre Woodard) is the owner of the Wing and a Prayer Diner. They are too women that couldn’t be more different demographically; they’re also best friends. However unlikely their friendship might seem, they’ve been nurturing it for thirty years. The emotional bonding of such contrasting backgrounds doesn’t become problematic until Alice’s newly wed daughter Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) and son-in-law Chris (Rockmond Dunbar) start working at the Cartwrights’ construction company–she very closely to the son, William (Cold Hauser), and he on building sites.

A title card announces that four years have passed since the wedding and reception scene that opens the film. During those years, Andrea became the breadwinner for her family (with a young son in tow) and developed a habit of belittling her husband’s dreams and ambitions. Meanwhile, Alice and her other daughter Pam (Taraji P. Henson) have been passing the days by working at the diner and maintaining a healthy financial profile with help from Nick (Sebastian Siegel), a homeless stockbroker. Pam’s husband Ben (Tyler Perry), Chris’s friend and coworker, is also keeping the status quo. On the Cartwright end, Charlotte has just hired Abigail Dexter (a scene-stealing Robin Givens) to be chief operating officer—-much to William’s chagrin—-and convinces Alice to go on a road trip. William has been devising a plan to take control of the business. His wife Jillian (KaDee Strickland) discovers early in the story that he can’t keep his marital faith (she smells another woman’s perfume on the collar). The butting heads and agendas inevitably lead to a smackdown that is both unexpected and perversely satisfying.

As weirdly mesmerizing as it is to see Cole Hauser wearing a look of perpetual hunger on his face, the sequences devoted to Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard’s cross-country drive are much more engaging. “The Family That Preys” fails to facilitate a more genuine investment in the adultery thread because it leaves out the best part: the initial flirtations, the escalating innuendo, and consummation of infidelity. When all pertinent hearts are flogged and egos shrunken, it’s nearly comforting to recognize that underneath the melodrama of cheating spouses and power struggles sits a road-movie-buddy-picture that could’ve been its own film.

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