Tyler Perry’s Acrimony used to be called She’s Living My Life, but it may as well have been called Diary of a Mad Black Woman. In fact, many of Perry’s earlier film titles could have served this, his first thriller, from Why Did I Get Married? to I Can Do Bad All by Myself. That last film, one of Perry’s better efforts, also starred Taraji P. Henson in a dramatic role. Henson, like Janet Jackson and Kimberly Elise, is one of Perry’s most interesting muses; he uses each in ways that capitalize on their innate strengths. With Elise, he’s inspired by her bottomless capacity for suffering; with Jackson, it’s a steely reserve that borders on ice-cold hostility. And with Henson, it’s a feistiness that is both warm and a warning.
Many fine actresses of color have given their all for Tyler Perry. They trust him. The problem is that Perry consistently lets them down. His scripts are lazily written morality plays that abruptly shift tone from comedy to tragedy. His direction is still, all these films later, distinguished by pacing problems and staging best reserved for television or the theater, where Perry’s issues are offset by the reactions of a live audience. All these issues are on display in Acrimony, which is better than most Perry films but not enough for any kind of creative breakthrough. Cut out thirty minutes and this might have been a lean, mean ’80s-thriller throwback blessed with a killer lead performance.
Acrimony is Perry’s first R-rated film since 2010’s For Colored Girls, and the rating seems to bring out the batshit in him. So I expected an entire film of scenes like Macy Gray’s For Colored Girls abortionist sequence, the most thrilling and bonkers thing Perry ever directed. Instead, despite all its Fatal Attraction-style trappings, Acrimony is a bloated drama at odds with itself and its characters. Who exactly are we supposed to root for here? The scorned woman or the husband who clearly did her wrong but tries to make amends?
Most of the audience I saw this with were on the side of Henson’s character, Melinda, whose marriage to a dreamer named Robert (Lyriq Bent) ends just before he hits it big with the rechargeable battery he spent twenty years inventing. Perry stacks the deck for Melinda, both on the soundtrack, where Henson narrates with profanity-filled lines tailored to generate maximum audience response, and in the plot, where she suffers one transgression after another. Under normal Tyler Perry circumstances, this is when Madea would show up to pistol-whip some sense into all parties. But the avenging angel in Acrimony is Melinda, and she makes Madea look like Gandhi.
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Take the flashback scene where young Melinda (played by Ajiona Alexus) and Robert are first courting. Acrimony establishes that Robert is a cheating, lowdown dog and that Melinda has anger-management problems that make the Hulk seem docile. When Melinda discovers Robert is screwing an ex named Diana in his raggedy-ass white-trash-style trailer, Melinda drives her car right through it, causing it to tip over and nearly kill the lovers inside. It’s Waiting to Exhale by way of Hal Needham. The women in my crowd cheered, and they booed when Melinda still decided to marry Robert.
Their marriage is a repetitive one. Robert does something trifling and Melinda explodes. Her anger is so legendary that at several points in Acrimony, people on the screen mimicked the audience’s cries of “YOU BETTER RUN!” To her credit, Henson plays the hell out of these scenes, even when she’s off screen narrating Alexus’s performance. Henson’s best moment comes during her big divorce scene. As Henson stares intensely and seethes at her soon-to-be-ex, Perry is off-camera with a smoke can dramatically pumping fake cigarette smoke into the frame. There’s so much it looks as if Henson is literally burning down the movie theater. “There’s the batshit!” I yelled at the screen. “More! More!”
Unfortunately, until the competently staged big action climax on a boat, Acrimony doesn’t deliver the thriller goods. The framework story is narrated by the older version of Melinda, who has been sentenced to therapy by a judge concerned with her inability to let Robert and former ex Diana (Crystle Stewart) live in peace. At one point, Melinda’s therapist implies that she has borderline personality disorder, but the film sweeps that under the rug so quickly that it should never have been mentioned. Acrimony doesn’t need to pray away the cray, or even explain it. We’re here to see the great Taraji P. Henson out for revenge and to cheer her comeuppance (or boo it, as my audience did).
About that comeuppance: The last scene of this movie is so blatantly symbolic that only Sam Fuller would have been ballsy enough to do something this obvious to get his moral’s point across. Tyler Perry clearly is as fearless as Sam Fuller. If only he had Fuller’s talent.