To state that The Family That Preys is Tyler Perry's most accomplished screen effort to date doesn't change the fact that it's still exactly the kind of preachy, pandering, tone-shifting, gospel-laced soap opera that he's served up time and time again to his dedicated audience. However, in the grand scheme of things, his skills as a writer-director have been honed just well enough to make one wish that Perry would trust someone else to polish his rough spots at the script stage, so that his cast might play at something a bit more substantial than petty drama and broad sermons, and so that his critical reputation as a filmmaker might grow (well, recover) from the shrill likes of his trademark Madea character.

Preys is ostensibly about the clashing of classes and the good ol' power of friendship, with the extended families of matriarchs Charlotte Cartwright (Kathy Bates, hamming it up at every turn) and Alice Pratt (Alfre Woodward, considerably more grounded) feuding over money and infidelity while those two are off making a sequel to Bonneville. Sure enough, the proceedings are propelled by all manner of confrontations and comeuppances, but when it comes down to it, Preys is as much a tale of morality as this week's Burn After Reading is about security; each is actually a movie about nothing, instead serving as an arena in which to see some familiar faces take on one another with behavior both selfish and sinister.

We as viewers know that Charlotte and Alice wouldn't be going on a memory-making road trip if one of them didn't have something tragic to share with the other. We also know that Charlotte's son (Cole Hauser) wouldn't be sleeping with one of Alice's daughters (Sanaa Lathan) unless her oft-shunned husband (Rockmond Dunbar) and his naive wife (KaDee Strickland) were to find out about it at some point, especially because just about every other character seems to have already picked up on it. It's a soap opera boiled down to a shoe-dropping session, and to a point, that constitutes progress on Perry's part (he also allows himself a supporting role, and a thankfully low-key one at that).

What a pity it is that said crap hitting the proverbial fan has to result in risibly written confessions and a significant slap to the spouse played as a crowd-pleasing note, because any fun before those points comes from watching the schemers and their agendas entangle one another. What works best here is the restraint; the sneers tend to speak louder than the slaps. Perry knows how to work up a good deal of friction, and if he could only find better ways to release it, he might be on the right track. At this point, he still lets his sappy stuff interfere with his soapy stuff, and the result shifts between merely warmed over to utterly half-baked.

No, there's no room for Madea here, but maybe with her own dedicated vehicle on the horizon, Perry can figure out his priorities when it comes to making movies about real-ish people with real-ish problems. Putting away the wig and glasses is a start, but refining his dramatic tendencies is going to take a few more steps than that, and if The Family That Preys is any indication, his feet may be shuffling, but at least they're headed in the right direction.