While it’s Taraji Henson’s scorned face staring back at you, Medusa-like, in the poster for the latest all-American, melodramatic thriller in which she stars, make no mistake about it, it’s the writer-director-producer’s unseen hand that’s all over it, and the film, Acrimony, is his, and his alone. That doesn’t mean the engaged, dynamic Henson, who’s already distinguished herself this year as Proud Mary, doesn’t make her presence known, but from the filmmaker’s responsive screenplay, to his fluid, assured direction, to his astute handling of another nice, primarily African-American cast, it’s a master class, and despite it’s rotten score by the arbitrators at the popular cinema site, it’s genre filmmaking that rises to the level of, uh-hum, greatness, dare I say.
For sure, Acrimony bears all the trademarks of Tyler Perry’s dramatic kit—flashy production values; beautiful people with their beautiful faces and beautiful bodies; overdramatized hijinks; romantic liaisons and disgraceful betrayals; playful dialogue and social innuendo—but the more outrageous and exaggerated effects he is known to employ are, uh-hum, toned down, or so well-established and stylishly conveyed they resemble Polanski and Hitchcock, I dare say. Indeed, if another filmmaker had made this film 60 years ago with, say, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, critics and audiences might’ve been enthralled. Frank Capra could’ve appreciated its tables-turning plot subversion; John Huston its beautiful, startling, red-tinged climax; Hitch himself its tense, stylish obsession. For better or worse, I imagine, this could be the filmmaker’s Vertigo. It’s essentially the consummate work in the Tyler Perry dramatic canon, a consummation of his career so far, sans Madea.
It could also be a submission in his own Dekalog. Like Kieslowski’s take on classical moral and ethical dilemmas played out in modern Eastern-European scenes of conflict and drenching turmoil, Perry’s romantic dramas have always seemed biblical in inspiration and nature; in fact, they wear scripture on their sleeves, and the former church-going youth’s latest is no different. The film is divided into chapters, I suppose, introduced by garish words like “Acrimony” and “Torment” with their definitions and synonyms that flash across the screen like signposts signaling the psychological progression of the affected protagonist. Indeed, the story is framed by Henson’s Melinda’s initial court-ordered therapy visit in which she appears in such flagrant and bellicose self-delusion she comes across like an alternately lucid and deranged character straight out of Poe; it only becomes more tragic from there. The framing device too casually takes us to Melinda’s formative years, and what ensues is so nicely portrayed we can forgive Perry a casual moment or two.
Stubborn, struggling college student Melinda (Ajiona Alexus, 13 Reasons Why, Bad Girl) rather abruptly meets gifted fellow student and Nina Simone–aficionado Robert (Antonio Madison, The Tailor’s Apprentice), who offers to help her with, what else, a paper. Their portentous meeting is one for the stars; Melinda soon realizes the engaging young man with the dark skin she’s been resisting is the love of her life, much to the dismay of her bossy sister, Brenda (Bresha Webb, Meet the Blacks, Ride Along 2). Here, Perry delivers some of the film’s most thoughtful moments in scenes of the young couple’s romantic tenderness. The screenwriter displays a nuance for the language and conventions of young people, pointing to what could be a most satisfying film that strays from his typical preoccupation with thirty and fortysomethings. The radiant Alexus, in particular, proves so serenely engaging that it is disappointing to leave this place; she certainly seems to have a promising career ahead of her, including playing Gabrielle Union’s daughter in the upcoming Breaking In. Perry does a nice job interweaving Henson’s biting narration with the flashback scenes, which are often in tonal contrast. The young lovers with the star-crossed dreams soon embrace calamity; the narrator’s lamentations become more acidic, and what ensues is flat-out Greek tragedy. The framework of the in-your-throat plot—three young sisters lose the matriarch of a matriarchy then watch as their inheritance and family home progressively dissolve on a pipe dream—which the director reckons with onscreen textural elements—could’ve been written by Lorraine Hansbury. The setting is Pittsburgh; one wonders how much August Wilson was on the filmmaker’s mind as well.
Perry has assembled quite a sterling production team at his vast Atlanta studio complex. There are too many names to mention for this one, but Paul Wonsek’s sleek production design, Richard Vialet’s fluid cinematography, and Kim Coleman (Almost Christmas, Chi-Raq) and Rhayvinn Drummer’s (The Single Moms Club) casting certainly stand out. Among their finds were prolific television acting costar Lyriq Bent (Love Jacked, Pay the Ghost) as the adult Robert, the nice Chrystle Stewart as Robert’s pivotal former college flame Diana, and Ptosha Storey as the adult Brenda. The soundtrack from Christopher Lennertz is a tour de force of the genre, and features a number of original songs, including several by Simone as well as a new interpretation performed by Grammy-nominated R&B singer-songwriter Andra Day. If you’re not generally a fan of the much-admired, and much-maligned, filmmaker’s canon, this one is not likely to change your mind, but who knows? If you do happen to see it, don’t let the confused, embarrassed audience hysterics affect you, just let yourself go. Acrimony is a beautifully done work by a primary American filmmaker who’s struck silver just by doing what he loves to do best.
(Polanski, Hitchcock, Capra, Huston, Kieslowski, Poe, Aristotle, Lorraine Hansbury, August Wilson, Tyler Perry… hmm. Call me crazy, or you be the judge, if you haven’t already… Acrimony continues in general theatrical release from Lionsgate.)
© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours