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‘Mea Culpa’ Review: Tyler Perry’s 1980s-Style Erotic Thriller Serves Up Guilty Pleasures to His Fans

Within his deal at Netflix, Tyler Perry has found room to flex his narrative muscles, mixing his familiar brand of comedy and melodrama with other genres. “A Jazzman’s Blues” applied Perry’s usual formula to a 1930s period setting. Before that, his first film for the streamer, “A Fall from Grace,” found him trying his hand at a legal thriller. Now, with “Mea Culpa,” the prolific writer-director pushes that genre further, making a loopy 1980s-style erotic thriller with a distinctly Tyler Perry flair. The plot skews close to “Jagged Edge” with a lawyer falling for her client, a man accused of murdering his partner, while referencing another famous ’80s staple, “Fatal Attraction,” via a love nest accessed only by freight elevator.

The lawyer in this scenario is Mea Harper (Kelly Rowland), and her possibly guilty client is artist Zyair Malloy (Trevante Rhodes), who’s accused of murdering his girlfriend. She’s married; he’s arrogant, talented and seductive. Audiences can sense where this is headed. Mea is first seen at marriage counseling with her husband (Sean Sagar). Things at home aren’t good, and she has a private investigator (RonReaco Lee) on his tail, since she caught him holding hands with another woman.

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That’s not all. This being a Perry production, there’s also complicated familial relationships. Mea’s mother-in-law (Kerry O’Malley) is a domineering cancer patient who doesn’t care for the woman her son chose. Her brother-in-law (Nick Sagar) is the district attorney prosecuting her client. The audience gets a hint that this will not be a straightforward erotic thriller in a scene in which the husband’s indiscretions are revealed.

An argument ensues, and accusations start flying from both spouses. Suddenly he’s not just a mama’s boy with a wandering eye, he’s also unemployed. To make matters worse, he was fired from his job as an anesthesiologist because he was high and drunk while working — or as Mea puts it, “got addicted to his own shit.” Rowland tries to infuse all the conviction she can muster into that line, but the scene immediately goes from serious to hilarious. It’s an early indication that there’s much more ridiculousness to come. Perry delivers on that promise.

Before things get preposterously delightful, Mea and Zyair have a sensual game of cat and mouse to play. Unfortunately, Rowland and Rhodes have no chemistry. They look the part and are lit in a way that accentuates their attractiveness, but something is off. The cheesy dialogue doesn’t help, nor does the repetitiveness of scenes where they threaten to end their professional relationship. Same goes for Mea’s many phone calls with her P.I., which do nothing but interrupt the budding infatuation.

Perry tries to infuse some heat into the proceedings with Amanda Jones’ score. But using music to create erotic tension that doesn’t exist is a fool’s errand, no matter how loud or soft it gets. The actors are just not in rhythm. They seem to be waiting for one another to finish sentences, throwing off the flow of the scenes.

Fear not, since there’s still the ridiculous finale to look forward to. It’s so over-the-top, so contrived that there’s no way to accept what happens as anything resembling real life, but it should work for anyone familiar with Perry’s oeuvre. Betrayals and grievances are revealed, things get physical, a knife or two are pulled and everything crumbles. Perry knows what he’s doing. He can’t possibly think any of this is believable for one second. But it could be fun to discuss its outlandishness over a few glasses of wine.

“Tyler Perry’s Mea Culpa” isn’t for everyone. In fact, many will write it off as as shlock, and yet, there’s something admirable about a filmmaker who knows exactly what his audience wants. For his loyal base, it will be enough entertainment on a slow night at home.

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