Tyler Perry is one of popular culture’s biggest contradictions: one of the most prominent African American storytellers in history, he’s a bonafide showman and a sloppy filmmaker, often at the same time. Perry’s prolific output often centers on inane dialogue, mismatched performances, and half-hearted scenarios that feel like they barely made it past the first draft. But whether he’s channeling his now-retired quasi-drag queen Madea or turning up the melodrama, Perry’s workmanlike approach always delivers on his own slapdash terms.
“A Fall From Grace,” Perry’s first feature for Netflix (and his first since apparently killing off Madea last year), encapsulates the essence of the Perry Touch. A trashy Hitchcockian riff designed to make its audience laugh out loud at every ludicrous twist, the movie turns on a peculiar miscarriage of justice and bizarre courtroom theatrics that make your average legal thriller look like Shakespeare. For that very reason, it’s almost certain to please anyone willing to roll with loose attention to logic. Shot in five days last December — because why not? — Perry’s self-produced soap opera scribble is the kind of hilarious so-bad-it’s-good romp in which the man behind the curtain invites his viewers to roll their eyes.
By that same token, “A Fall From Grace” shows just enough potential that one can imagine the sturdier drama that a more cautious approach might have wrought. Set within the vague backdrop of suburban Virginia and a nearby penitentiary, Perry’s script finds young public defender Jasmine (Bresha Webb) eager to take on her first case and tasked with getting a plea deal from Grace (Crystal Fox), a middle-aged woman who has confessed to murdering her younger husband. After meeting a despondent Grace, however, Jasmine’s not so sure that Grace actually did it, a suspicion that grows as she tracks down her son and best pal Sarah (a tough Phylicia Rashad, always a compelling presence). While Jasmine’s stern boss (Perry, dialing down his more flamboyant instincts) insists she needs to get the plea bargain and get out, the feisty aspirational defender eventually coerces a shackled Grace to share her tale of woe.
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Needless to say, Jasmine has reasons for concern — but Perry saves most of them for a jam-packed finale with enough outrageous revelations to fuel a few franchises. That’s not to say that the movie delivers on every twist, but spoiling any of them would ruin its greatest asset. In a meandering flashback that forms the movie’s centerpiece, Grace recalls her courtship with dashing young photographer Shannon (Mehcad Brooks), who seduces her while she’s still reeling from her divorce. A couple of charming dates later, and Shannon proposes, but once the couple settle down she realizes he’s not quite the Prince Charming she expected.
Things go wrong. Very wrong. Shannon lies, cheats, and steals, with clunky sequences marred by blunt dialogue and the ongoing lack of chemistry from actors who seem as though they’re playing to different genres. But there’s an underlying sorrow to the way the good-natured Grace’s world collapses around her, and the immediacy of the justice system to lock her up for good imbues the movie with some measure of purpose beneath the escapist foundation. Operating on a continuum with 2019 releases “Clemency” and “Just Mercy,” Perry has made his own scathing indictment of a legal process rigged to put black people behind bars for no good reason. It just so happens that Perry’s version of that story also trips on thin characters, dull line readings, and the production values of a Lifetime movie.
But oh, those twists. Slithering into the potential for a lo-fi Blumhouse shockfest, “A Fall From Grace” eschews logic for one jarring reveal after another, so that even Hitchcock would admire Perry’s gall. No filmmaker leans into the potential for audience response with such unvarnished energy, and it’s no wonder that Perry’s campy instincts have such resonance. (“A Fall From Grace” could have played Sundance’s midnight section and nobody would have questioned the decision.) It’s almost too easy to denigrate Perry’s narrative strategies at the expense of missing how little he cares to polish them up. A modern-day William Castle, his work suggests greater willingness to pull the strings than to waste much time rigging them up.
Scene after scene has been primed for audience reactions. To detail such thrills would lead to spoilers, save for one example: When Jasmine attempts to convince her boss that Grace deserves her a fair trial, he barks back, “If you argued like that in court, you could be a lawyer.” At this critic’s screening, the ensuing “ooh!” echoed the walls, and it wasn’t the last of them — right on cue, every time.
None of that excuses the slipshod filmmaking, or the underlying sense that Perry would be better off tossing some of his random ideas to talented young black directors rather than doing them badly all by himself. But it’s a small wonder to watch his agenda take hold. Some two decades after his initial rise to fame, Perry’s DIY crowdpleasers have calcified into an unassailable approach, and he knows it. As if to acknowledge as much, his onscreen character in “A Fall From Grace” shrugs off Jasmine’s never-ending drive as “a millennial thing I’ll never understand.” The irony is that Perry clearly understands the value of making fast, disposable entertainment readymade for the streaming era. Madea may be dead, but the Tyler Perry brand remains steadier than ever.
“A Fall From Grace” is now available on Netflix.