For some time now, Tyler Perry‘s directorial reputation has suggested less of an interest in breaking into the ranks of Hollywood’s auteurs, and far more of an interest in becoming one of its most relentlessly prolific directors. His films may not always be visually clean, but he turns them out quick, with a keen nose for what his desired audiences want out of a Perry vehicle. Sometimes it’s a broad, easy laugh (the Madea vehicles, which he seems to be increasingly keen to leave behind, at least onscreen). Sometimes it’s the kind of melodramatic pathos that he’s done fairly well in the past (For Colored Girls.) And sometimes, as in the case of a film like Acrimony, it’s a delirious carousel of campily excessive drama, often wrapped in dubious ethics, featuring some truly outrageous subject matter.
If you’re going to swing for that last mode, it’s hard to imagine a more adept performer for Perry’s particular brand of the same than Taraji P. Henson. Her work in I Can Do Bad All By Myself stood out in what’s otherwise one of Perry’s most tonally inconsistent films, even by his standards, and here he demonstrates a predominant interest in the version of Henson that made Empire‘s Cookie one of the bigger breakout TV characters of the last few years. In what’s probably the film’s best sequence, and also has the misfortune of being the one that opens it, her Melinda sits in a therapist’s office (a common framing device in Perry vehicles), burning through a cigarette while demanding to know why her anger relegates her to the sterotype of “angry black woman.” As Melinda sees it, her anger at her ex is not only justified but reasonable, the single sane response to the years of bullshit and adversity she’s been put through by other people. As Melinda insists, she shouldn’t have to worry about being considered a stereotype, when she has every reason to be consumed by blinding rage.
Much of her anger comes from one specific party: her ex-husband Robert (Lyriq Bent). As Perry makes clear from the jump, Robert was never going to be a quality husband or partner to Melinda. He’s obsessed with his would-be breakout invention, a self-powering battery, to ridiculous and borderline Hudsucker Proxian degrees. He cheats on Melinda with a classmate earlier in their relationship, but even after Melinda responds by ramming her Jeep into Robert’s trailer (with both Robert and his lover in it), it only takes a fistful of promises and sweet talk to send her right back. That becomes the rolling motif of their relationship, and eventual marriage. Robert proposes without a ring, but promises one someday. Robert continues to siphon off more and more of Melinda’s family inheritance for the sake of his big invention, but seems to only drag them both down with it. Melinda’s sisters insist that he’s a go-nowhere bum, with a virtually psychotic fixation on having a specific agency buy his patent, but Melinda stays true. After all, she’s in love.
Perry and Henson seem to almost exist at odds throughout the film’s early scenes; the director’s soap operatic visual tendencies frequently undercut the nostril-flaring tenacity of Henson’s performance, whether it’s the prosaic Merriam-Webster definitions of the film’s title and other key themes imposed onscreen or the repetitive cycle of abuse and forgiveness that drives the plot. But in the case of the latter, there are moments when Acrimony rises to meet the caustic tenacity of its leading turn. There’s a vicious, biting relationship satire visible at the fringes of Acrimony that seems desperate to burst forth, evidenced in bits like the rolling onscreen ticker Perry employs to illustrate how much money Robert is using up, and how quickly at that. (“As the money got low, so did his affection.”) It’s a film concerned with a different kind of abusive partner than the general door-kicking Perry antagonist: the guy who seems perfectly nice and unassuming, and may even mean well, but still ruins a woman’s life in the process of chasing his own dreams under the auspices of “doing it all for us.” That the film never fully gets to the heart of its savage commentaries is probably its greatest disappointment.
At points, Henson does some standout work, giving one of the better overall performances in a Perry vehicle to date. Melinda might be bitter, but the bitterness is wholly justified; at best, Robert is all talk and no walk, and at worst, he’s actively bleeding Melinda of everything she has to give him, until there’s nothing left for her to give but the last wisps of her emotional energy. Henson seems to have a perfect handle on the line between ferocious and cartoonish that the film calls for, at least onscreen, and her steady decline into abrasive bitterness keeps the film running even when the plot points swerve into the ridiculous. However, she’s not helped by the film’s structure, which requires her to deliver some of recent cinema’s most heavy-handed narrative, which comes off as purple as Henson’s onscreen character work comes off genuine.
Where Acrimony ultimately goes wrong, ironically enough, is when Perry fully leans into the camp that’s come to define so much of his latter-day career. The film trods all over its biting opening point about stereotypes when Melinda is eventually reduced to the kind of madwoman that she’s commenting upon earlier in the same movie. As the film’s tone swings from satiric to inadvertently comic to trashily nonsensical, even a handful of well-composed shots during the hyper-dramatic (and inexplicably violent) climax can’t save Acrimony from turning into exactly the kind of movie that audiences would expect. That’s fine and well for Perry diehards, but everyone else will likely find themselves wondering how such a promising start winds up where it does at the end of two hours.