Two Matriarchs Keep 'Family That Preys' Afloat

The best thing about "Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys" is the opportunity it affords to watch a pair of veteran actresses still at the top of their game.

Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates play best pals in this soap opera-style story, and the moments each are on-screen are undeniably the movie's best. One senses a rapport and chemistry between the women that transcends the formulaic plot.

Essentially, this is a tale of two families whose lives have been intertwined for a couple of generations.

At first, it's hard to imagine what drew Woodard's modest Alice to Bates' over-the-top Charlotte. While Alice is down-to-earth, wise and warm, Charlotte is imperious, childish and unforgiving. Both are divorced, though Charlotte has been through a trio of wealthy husbands and rattles around in a sprawling plantation-style mansion. Alice lives much more modestly. Charlotte is on the board of a huge corporation built by one her husbands, while Alice runs a cozy diner along with her daughter Pam (Taraji Henson). Charlotte must contend with William, her arrogant, scheming son running the family company (Cole Hauser). Meanwhile, Alice is baffled by her self-centered and ambitious daughter (Sanaa Lathan) who from the day of her wedding looks down on her construction worker husband, Chris. (Rockmond Dunbar). Pam and her husband (Tyler Perry in a very low-key role) have a stable marriage, but struggle financially.

The focus is squarely on the family: parent-child issues, sibling rivalry and infidelity are the main problems, but issues like greed and corruption also are part of the tale. Perry also addresses complex race and class issues and generally tackles a broader canvas with this more serious story. There's no sign of the ribald, pot-smoking granny, Madea, played by Perry in several previous films.

What makes this movie entertaining hinges mostly on Woodard and Bates, as they take a road trip across the South and Southwest. Their encounters with garrulous cowboys, sundry rednecks and other characters provide some humor. What might easily have been annoying and cloying in the hands of lesser actresses is enjoyable here. In contrast, some of the smaller parts, such as William's clueless wife, Jillian (KaDee Strickland), and Abby (Robin Givens), a knowing and principled executive, seem more amateurish, particularly when compared with Woodard's natural performance.

Though better than most of Perry's broad comedies, "The Family That Preys" still suffers from excessive predictability and mawkish sentiment, which detracts from the story's believability. When the story is focused upon the formidable duo of family matriarchs, things proceed more smoothly.