Broadly speaking, writer-director-producer Tyler Perry makes two kinds of feature films: funny ones that are awful, and serious ones that can, from time to time,be okay. The last serious one was Acrimony in 2018, and before that was Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor in 2013, both of which break that general pattern by being among the most inept and awful movies of Perry's prolific career, so we were overdue for another one and hopefully one that's at least middling, and we've gotten in now in the form of A Fall from Grace. Which, I will say in the film's favor, it seems for a pretty long time like it's going to be middling, before a completely bonkers final act pushes the film right down near the bottom of Perry's filmography. And even before that, the absolute best thing I can say is that it follows the very bad formula that Temptation and Acrimony laid down while being at least slightly more effective. It is a bit dispiriting and astonishing to think that Perry is getting worse at writing as he goes along, and annoying that a big part of that seems to be that he was much better at this when he was still making overt Christian propaganda films, but here we are.

A Fall from Grace is Perry's first film financed and released through Netflix, which feels like a match made in heaven. He's prolific and artless and his movies feel like they've been stamped out at a factory that needs its machines to be recalibrated; that's basically Netflix's stock in trade at this point. Even granting all of that, there's something astonishing about the no-way-can-this-be-true claim made by Perry himself that A Fall from Grace was shot over the course of just five days in December 2019, as the first feature made entirely at his Georgia film studio. Not that it's impossible to get a film in the can that fast, but this is a two-hour movie with several locations; the mind reels to figure out how it was even mathematically possible. Still, let's take Perry at his word, and suppose that principal photography lasted for one business week: with that in mind, the fact that the movie is basically functional is an astonishing miracle, and demanding that it function well would be churlish.

For it certainly does not function well: while it's not quite as inept on fundamentals as Acrimony (Perry's worst-made film), A Fall from Grace isn't anybody's idea of a well-made film on almost any level. I guess the sound recording is fine. Otherwise, we've got some clunky visual set-ups that rely extensively on medium wide shots and use insert shots with a kind of lurching artlessness that feels literally more than a century out of date, and actors so astonishingly ill-prepared to cope with the chunky, multi-phase narrative and insane robot dialogue that even a legend like Cicely Tyson manages to completely embarrass herself.

The plot is a whirlwind that starts by introducing us to young lawyer Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb), possibly the worst public defender in the state. We learn about her almost before we learn anything else that she's burned out in record time, having moved from starry-eyed idealism about protecting people from the ravages of the American prison system to finding her drug-dealing petty criminal clients so morally loathsome that she can barely bring herself to defend them. And after a fashion, she doesn't: her favored strategy is to arrange plea bargains and get her clients safely in prison for a modest term without having to deal with them too much. And this is why her boss Rory (Perry himself, looking rather stentorian and stately with his greying hair) has put her on a particularly open and shut case: middle-aged Grace Waters (Crystal Fox) has confessed to the murder of her husband, and all that's wanting is to quickly push her through the legal system so sentence can be rendered. Jasmine can't even do that; the plea deal she's able to strike is an awful joke, but Grace seems curiously eager to take it. That's enough to get Jasmine's lawyer-sense tingling, and a meeting with Grace's best friend Sarah Miller (Phylicia Rashad) seems to confirm that whatever happened, it's not as clear-cut as Grace and the state both want it to be. And so Jasmine, against the advice of everybody who knows what a hapless fuck-up she is, decides to makesย  sure that Grace has her day in court.

We have a lot of possible threads to start tugging on: Jasmine's forcible maturation, learning to fight for her clients rather than lazily take the path of least resistance; the always-timely matter of how the U.S. criminal justice system punitively devours African-Americans; questions of guilt and responsibility and how social class moderates the people who get help in navigating a hostile world. A Fall from Grace is done being interested in any of these. Instead, once Jasmine starts to interview Grace, it it turns into a traditional Tyler Perry morally hectoring melodrama. It was shortly after Grace's no-good husband cheated on her and they divorced that, urged on by Sarah, she put herself back on the dating market. In fairly short order, she met a charming photographer, Shannon DeLong (Mehcad Brooks) at his exhibition, and the younger man immediately took to hitting on her. Soon enough, they were married, despite the terrible red flag that Shannon does not like going to church, and that's when things start to go so over-the-top wrong, in the span of like a week, that there basically wasn't any solution to it but for Grace to club her husband to death. The flashbacks end, and confronted with an extremely straightforward admission of guilt, Jasmine attempts to concoct a defense, leading to yet a third story, a courtroom drama, where we learn that Perry is aware of the terms that you become aware of when you watch a lot of courtroom dramas, but he was only half paying attention to them. This is the point where the bottom starts to fall out of the movie. It completely disappears and leaves us hovering over the abyss for the fourth story, which shoves the movie into a fundamentally different genre, one that's more interesting at least, on account of being batshit nuts, but nothing about the first 105 minutes of A Fall from Grace have prepared us for it in even the slightest degree, so when it comes, it feels more like a writer who trapped himself into a corner decides that the best way to escape is simply to level everything with a nuclear bomb.

The first half of the film is no good, but it's a comfortable kind of no good, the Perry kind, where contrived melodrama meets hilariously stiff dialogue - "I was burning the midnight oil and the candle at both ends" is a fairly representative line of Grace's narration, and the film is unusually beholden to "let me repeat what you just said in minutely different language" conversations to make its exposition go - and no amount of talent or charisma is enough for the actors to find their way into manufacturing characters out of it. But it moves by smoothly enough until it gets to the courtroom, where it becomes helplessly divorced from any human behavior and descends into a barrage of "objection! sustained! objection! sustained!" beats, turning into something too trite, flatfooted, and arrhythmic to even be fun bad. The final sequence, that's almost fun bad; it is shocking, at least, and a shock that carries with it a sort of dazed amusement. But it's not nearly enough to slog through what might well be the worst writing of Perry's whole career - and that's some pretty stiff competition!