Tyler Perry’s Erotic Netflix Thriller ‘Mea Culpa’ Struggles with Tone [Review]

Horror

Loosely translated, “Mea culpa” is Latin for “it’s my fault.” It’s something of a cheeky title for Tyler Perry’s Netflix Erotic Thriller Mea Culpa, considering that lead character Mea (Kelly Rowland) can hardly be blamed for the events that transpire.

Like most Erotic Thrillers, Mea Culpa traffics in temptation, desire, and secrets. The two hour film opens with a deluge of expository back story, immediately throwing the audience into the sordid family life of Mea Harper, a wealthy and successful criminal defense lawyer based out of Chicago.

The first few scenes confirm that Mea is having marital difficulties with her husband Kal Hawthorne (Sean Sagar). He’s been unemployed for eight months after being fired for his drug addiction, and they’re in couples counselling because Mea suspects he cheated with his friend Jenna (Arianna Barron).

Mea is also extremely jealous of Kal’s relationship with his mother, Azalia (Kerry O’Malley). And for good reason: Azalia is a caricature of a White Bitch, a woman who isn’t afraid to comment loudly that Kal is too good for Mea in front of an entire dinner party full of guests. The fact that Mea has kept quiet about Kal’s unemployment, even as he sells her piano to pay for an expensive watch for his mother, firmly aligns the audience’s sympathies with the film’s heroine.

This is important when Zyair Malloy (Trevante Rhodes) enters the film a few scenes later. The notoriously rich womanizer is on trial for the murder of his Mexican girlfriend Hydie (María Gabriela González), but he’s already been convicted in the court of public opinion. Women protest outside the Evervine gallery where his paintings hang, he’s hounded by paparazzi when he leaves his palatial loft, and Kal’s assistant DA brother Ray (Nick Sagar, Sean’s real life brother) plans to use the case in his forthcoming mayoral bid.

Naturally Mea’s life is upended when she decides to represent Zyair. 50% of her decision is driven by financial need (she’s footing all of the couple’s bills, including Azalia’s cancer treatments), but, more significantly, it’s her attempt to wrestle a small measure of control from her domineering extended family. Only Mea’s sister-in-law Charlise (Shannon Thorton) is on her side, though it’s clear that Charlise doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to Ray.

It’s inevitable that Mea and Zyair strike up an affair, despite the fact that Mea and her private investigator Jimmy (Ronreaco Lee) are in agreement that the painter is either lying or he’s a psychopath.

Rhodes plays the dubious person of interest with just the right amount of smarmy charm. Zyair is always either smiling or laughing when he’s being questioned about the details of the case, which casts obvious doubt on his innocence. The painter seems much more interested in getting into Mea’s pants than avoiding lethal injection, even going so far as to fire her when the lawyer refuses to acknowledge her attraction to him.

This is all par for the course for the subgenre: characters in Erotic Thrillers are always driven by sex and control, often at the expense of their safety and security. Perry’s script wisely positions Mea’s infidelity around a moment of uncertainty; while it’s clearly a bad idea to return Zyair’s loft after he propositions her, she does so believing that Kal has already cheated.

Considering all of Mea Culpa‘s similarities to Madonna & Willem Dafoe’s notorious bomb Body of Evidence, Perry’s decision to camp up the film’s single explicit sex scene is perplexing. Given Zyair’s tendency to involve his sexual partners in his art, it’s unsurprising when he breaks out a drop cloth and cans of paint. The sight of the lovers painting each other’s skin and humping, however, immediately shifts the film’s tone from steamy to silly.

Whether this campy ridiculousness is intention is unclear. Perry’s work tends to be sensational, even outrageous, but so much of Mea Culpa’s overly long runtime is a self-serious look at how trapped Mea is in her awful marriage. By comparison the sex scene and a subsequent sequence, when she rips down a dozen portraits of Zyair’s lovers from the canvas hanging over his bed, play like parody. It’s an amusing reprieve from an otherwise somber affair, but is the audience meant to take it seriously?

Mea Culpa review

This uneven tonal balance persists into the climax. Here the family drama intersects with the murder investigation and shifts the film firmly from Erotic to Thriller, ending the film on a ludicrous, but enjoyable note. It’s enough to make one wish that the rest of the film had embraced this level of silly, rather than just sprinkling it in sporadically. Between the knives, guns, and Checkov’s Bluetooth, the climax is nearly good enough to recommend the film as a whole. It’s a cackle-worthy good time.

Ultimately Mea Culpa has a lot going for it: incredible costumes (Rowland’s wardrobe is a dream), a game cast, and a solid, albeit slightly formulaic premise. It is Perry’s uneven handling of tone, as well as the too-long runtime, that lets the film down. It needs to be hotter and more thrilling, or campier and more ridiculous. Tragically it falls somewhere in the middle.

Mea Culpa is now streaming on Netflix.

2.5 out of 5 skulls

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