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‘Mea Culpa’ review: In Tyler Perry’s Chicago, attorney-client privileges include sex and painting lessons

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Now steaming on Netflix, as well as streaming, the super-ripe Tyler Perry legal thriller “Mea Culpa” has zero hold on reality-based behavior. But life is short. Why demand something so dull of something like this? No need pleading guilty-pleasure when the movie itself pleads no contest within minutes of introducing Chicago’s most ethically fluid defense attorney, played by Kelly Rowland.

Attorney Mea Harper takes the case of accused murderer Zyair Malloy (Trevante Rhodes), very big in the art world and living in a very big loft to prove it. His high-ceiling workplace, also his sexplace, is accessed by a freight elevator on loan from Glenn Close and “Fatal Attraction.”

The legal eagle is not in a good place of her own as “Mea Culpa” embarks on its merry, trashy way. The attorney’s anesthesiologist husband (Sean Sagar) has been semi-secretly unemployed for eight months after getting high on his own supply. Her brother-in-law (Nick Sagar) is the district attorney, itching to prosecute the accused artist and further his own mayoral ambitions.

Mea’s in-laws wriggle under the thumb of her husband’s not-nice mother (Kerry O’Malley), near death after a cancer diagnosis but full of vitriolic zingers. Early in “Mea Culpa,” shot mostly in Atlanta with a few exterior bits on location in Chicago for fake authenticity, mom is birthday-gifted with a many-thousand-dollars wristwatch. “How much was it?” seethes the resentful, cash-strapped Mea on the ride home. Don’t worry, her husband replies, “I sold the piano.”

Enticed by the prospect of going head-to-head in court against her DA brother-in-law, Mea goes all in with the case of the mysterious hunky artist. Zyair’s up against considerable circumstance evidence, including cellphone footage of one of his missing-presumed-dead ex-lovers screaming “HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” But did he? And what’s the story behind the fractured skull bits embedded in one of the artist’s paintings?

Mea keeps it strictly business for a scene or two. Then it’s sexytime, full of candlelit finger painting on various body parts. Quicker than you can draw a Jagged Edge around the Body of Evidence, “Mea Culpa” gets squirrelier and squirrelier, though much of Perry’s dialogue in the earlier scenes sets the tone. “I am your attorney. I am not your friend,” Mea states for the record, although she’s no match for the come-ons murmured by Rhodes: “I find you incredibly attractive … the way you smell … your brilliance … all very intriguing.” The Isaac Hayes cover of “Walk on By” on the turntable takes it from there.

Writer-producer-director Perry knows what he’s doing here, and what he’s willfully overdoing. If the relatively chaste 2020 Netflix ripoff “Fatal Affair” can revive the late ’80s-mid-’90s cycle of legal trouble, Perry can too, with more skin and some polish to go with the ridiculousness. Amanda Jones’ cello-lined musical score is a real plus, even if its restraint is fundamentally at odds with the reasons we watch stuff like this. Which are?

For many, the reasons go back to the simple pleasures of heckling, either out loud or in our own interior monologues. It’s not about derision, really, even with setups and payoffs as wait, whaaaaat? as those in “Mea Culpa.” When Zyair forces his lawyer to watch him in flagrante delicto with an anonymous nude groupie, appearing out of thin air, it’s practically an improv prompt. Also, Zyair happens to live directly above an underground crimson-hued sex club. You know, as one does. Imagine the homeowner association fees.

Without giving away the last 20 minutes, which really go for it, “Mea Culpa” includes the useful reminder that anyone who offers someone red wine and says “Here, I made you a drink” is walking human neon sign spelling danger. There’s no “making” a glass of wine. There’s just the “pouring.” You say “making,” and you’re saying “glassful of trouble,” which tends to give the game away a little more pointedly than warranted.

Tyler Perry the screenwriter may never come close to the skill level of Tyler Perry the first-rate actor; he does not appear on screen here, which is sad. But Tyler Perry the producing entertainment force remains an empire of its own.

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‘MEA CULPA’

2 stars (out of 4) 

MPA rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Running time: 2:00

How to watch: Netflix

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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