Mea Culpa review – Tyler Perry’s schlocky Netflix thriller descends into silliness

<span>Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes in Mea Culpa.</span><span>Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy</span>
Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes in Mea Culpa.Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
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There are small pockets of low-rent fun to be had in Tyler Perry’s lurid erotic thriller Mea Culpa, some intentional, most less so. It’s a film that, yes, is about a woman called Mea who is also, yes, at fault, as women often are in the writer-director’s films. The mogul has gained a reputation for punishing his female characters, especially when they dare to stop believing in their husband, no matter how awful his behaviour might be, like in his atrocious 2018 thriller Acrimony, where he had the gall to waste, and chastise, Taraji P Henson.

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His latest target is a powerful lawyer played by Kelly Rowland, making a convincing case as leading lady, trapped in a marriage with a letdown, a man fired from his job as an anaesthetist for turning up to work high and drunk (!). He’s also under the thumb of his vile mother, played to such laughable extremes by Kerry O’Malley that I half-expected her to literally start breathing fire. When Mea is approached about defending an extravagant painter, Zayir (Moonlight’s MVP Trevante Rhodes, who deserves far better), accused of murdering his girlfriend, she initially turns it down, not just because the case seems unwinnable but because her brother-in-law would be the opposing attorney (!). But when the aforementioned battleaxe, also dying of cancer (!), insists that Mea not take the case, she decides to rebel and soon finds herself falling for her client. Kinky sex follows.

Perry clearly has his sights set on glossy 80s and 90s crowd-pleasers like Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct and for fans of that mostly dead subgenre, there’s some initially involving throwback pleasure as we go through the motions (Fatal Attraction-esque freight elevator – check!). Rowland and Rhodes have a blast doing sex eyes at each other, there’s a small role for the underused Surviving Remorse standout RonReaco Lee and while we’re clearly on a Netflix budget, Perry realises that part of the sleek thrill of these movies is watching attractive people wearing expensive clothes living in ostentatious homes. But Perry is no Joe Eszterhas, his script a clumsily thrown together house of cards that needs only a whisper to come crashing down. Eszterhas may have lost his lustre over time but at his peak he knew exactly how pulp like this should go down, a slick storyteller with a knack for knowing when and how to push buttons. Perry can barely reach the buttons let alone push them and instead, his junkily structured thriller goes from poorly paced to incoherently plotted.

As one might have guessed from the plot description, it’s hopelessly overstacked, Perry’s poor actors stumbling over absurdly soapy dialogue, needlessly busying something that required a lot more focus to work. While it might start out as an erotic thriller, it slows down to a damp relationship drama before meandering its way to a climax hinged on head-scratching twists that make little to zero sense. Perry has the ability to surprise (as he did in the stunningly silly ending of his last Netflix thriller A Fall from Grace, a film so shoddily thrown together it had to be re-edited after viewers noticed a number of glaring errors) but not the smarts to explain himself. The last act is full of such preposterous contrivances and nonsensical reveals that I had to keep rewinding to ensure I hadn’t missed something (I hadn’t). The stupidity of it all is certainly diverting but it’s all too scattershot and at times stiflingly portentous to cross over into pure camp.

This week saw Perry reveal how he decided to halt an expansion to his Atlanta studio after seeing what the controversial AI video generator Sora can do, both shocked and seemingly impressed (he also said that he has already been using AI in recent films). If Mea Culpa is what Perry creates without fully handing over the reins to machines then heaven knows how bad things are gonna get.

  • Mea Culpa is now available on Netflix