‘Mea Culpa’ Review: A Steamy Thriller With Too Much Steam And Little Logic

Mea Culpa is a great title because the story revolves around Mea Harper, a defense attorney whose life changes after she decides to represent the artist Zyair Malloy. Director Tyler Perry is no stranger to this kind of filmmaking. He wears the writer’s hat on this one as he cooks up another one of those steamy thriller plots that culminate in a violent finale. Perry, who is an actor too, is not known for his nuanced writing. His films have been criticized for not looking cinematic enough and being on the wavelength of a soap opera rather than a movie. Mea Culpa is clearly suffering from the fact that it cannot surpass movies like Basic Instinct, or 9½ Weeks, which is what it felt like it was riffing off of, and when that happens, one starts to wonder if it had anything new to say or if it was made just for the heck of it.

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Mea Harper, played by Kelly Rowland, is your elegant defense attorney, one that you know will never back down no matter what. In that case, it’s important that obstacles be thrown in her way to test her resolve, and this is how she ends up defending Zyair Malloy, who is accused of having killed his girlfriend Hydie. Zyair Malloy, played by Trevante Rhodes, is that kind of character where you know something is off and the film sets up all sorts of misdirection, and thus Perry manages to create intrigue. The soapy drama comes from the fact that Mea is in a bad marriage and going to counseling sessions where a dull counselor asks dull questions and the boring couple have a low-stakes fight about their marriage. Mea is bothered by her husband Kal’s devotion to his mother Azalia, who is suffering from cancer. I don’t know about you, but Mea comes off as the selfish one in the relationship after she is shown to get mad at Kal. For Mea to not look totally unlikeable, we are told that she is paying all the bills for Kal, who had lost his job, and yet not disclosing that to his brother Ray, who was the assistant district attorney and had chosen to prosecute Zyair.

This plot complication is significant because, without it, one will see that the actors seem a little stiff in all the scenes. The believability is not there, but that is never the hook in Perry’s films. This is an adult thriller, and most of the heft of that tag had to be brought through the interaction between Mea and Zyair, and that is where the film seems too hollow. The characters lack the depth that would make their interaction mean something more than the obvious furthering of the plot. We see that Zyair is a dubious figure, an artist who has managed to get rich by selling paintings to his ex-girlfriend. But how exactly did he manage to seduce Mea Harper, who is shown to be such a headstrong figure? Oh yes, he didn’t, did he? Take my word for it, he didn’t. There was a lot of convincing done later on that she was, but she was more creeped out, it seemed. 

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So does this mean that the seduction had nothing to do with the plot? Not really. It was more like Mea took revenge against Kal for his sleeping around. Perry’s staging of scenes is not impressive. His character introductions are framed with seemingly no regard for how they might impact the scenes later. One has to have a pretty good understanding of holding your cards close to your chest, so they are not too obvious. Mea Culpa puts us in this plot and then gives us twist after twist. The story doesn’t become interesting after that; quite the opposite, it becomes too convenient, and the lazy writing becomes clearer by the second. 

There is a scene in the film where Zyair’s character could have gained more depth and intrigue, but it turned out to be creepy more than anything else. Mea’s character is set up as someone who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense coming her way, but Zyair, for some reason, takes her to a sex club in the base of the building he was staying in, and Mea is fine to enter it, and later she comes back when Zyair is occupied with another woman. What is really going on with this character? I didn’t get it. Does she or does she not have self-respect? 

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The ending to the murder plot is so derailed that it seems like it belongs to a different movie. The performers don’t even try in some scenes to make sense out of the whole thing. They had barely managed to do so in the earlier scenes. They give up in the third act. Everybody has to resort to pure caricaturish faces—you know, the ones that are twisted and eyes start doing that Kubrickian thing to reveal in an instant who is the villain. I have no patience for that kind of acting and directing anymore. What bothers me is that Perry got good locations for all the scenes but did not film them from where they would look best. Forget the locations; in some scenes, the actors’s faces are cut off because of the different heights of the actors in the frame. Where to place the camera is also an art, and the film lacks in the cinematography department, for sure. 

Mea Culpa is only creative with its title, it seems. This one will definitely go down on the list of run-of-the-mill adult thrillers if ever one of those lists gets made. The characters are not well-defined, and the performances suffer as a result. There is just too much stress on the payoff of the violent finale. At one point, I felt like I was watching Rosemary’s Baby, where everybody had lost their minds, and attacked Mea for having slept with Zyair once, and that made more sense than what they did to Charlise, Mea’s sister-in-law. If my review made you watch the film – mea culpa.

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Ayush Awasthi
Ayush Awasthi
Ayush is a perpetual dreamer, constantly dreaming of perfect cinematic shots and hoping he can create one of his own someday.

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Mea Culpa is only creative with its title, it seems. This one will definitely go down on the list of run-of-the-mill adult thrillers if ever one of those lists gets made. 'Mea Culpa' Review: A Steamy Thriller With Too Much Steam And Little Logic