By: Steve Pulaski
I'll be eating crow come this October or the next after this proclamation, but if sitting through one of Tyler Perry's dreadful Boo! sequels means we can also get something like Tyler Perry's Acrimony from the largely self-made filmmaker, then that's not a terrible trade-off. Acrimony is the kind of meaty, immersing drama that has Perry being conscientious of craft and other aesthetic details that usually fall by the wayside in his run-of-the-mill "Madea" efforts. Furthermore, it's a strong, Joan Crawford-esque showcase for Taraji P. Henson, who was recently shortchanged in the generic actioneer Proud Mary, and would have you believe she's redirecting her rage for that project over the course of Perry's latest.
The film — which also serves as only Perry's second R-rated film after For Colored Girls in 2010 — opens in a courtroom. Henson's Melinda is in the process of being told by the judge, yet again, about the restraining order placed against her by her ex-husband, Robert (She's Gotta Have It's Lyriq Bent), and his fiancée, Diana (Crystle Stewart). In her subsequent anger management session, Melinda tells her story before the unseen therapist, facing the camera, casually smoking a cigarette; flashbacks commence after several minutes of Perry's camera zeroing in on her unamused facial expressions and resentful statements.
Melinda (played by Ajiona Alexus in her younger years) met Robert (Antonio Madison) in college, and despite initial apprehension after the two collide into one another, they are dating. When Melinda's mother passes away, Robert is there for sympathy and a shoulder to cry on, able to employ his "con," as she puts on it, at her most vulnerable time. Melinda uses the large sum of money left from her mother to support Robert financially, buying him a car, helping cover his tuition, and even to further the engineer's invention, a self-charging battery. Despite him cheating on her with Diana (then played by Shavon Kirksey), Melinda still remains fiercely loyal, although this comes after knocking over his RV with her jeep and nearly killing herself upon discovering the infidelity.
Fast-forward several years and Melinda and Robert, now in middle-age, are married and going nowhere. She is working multiple jobs to keep her mother's home — now in foreclosure thanks to Robert's idea to mortgage it — and his battery is making no progress. Robert discovers Diana is working at the technology giant where he's pitched his battery idea persistently for the last several years. With the help of Melinda's two sisters, (Ptosha Storey and Jazmyn Simon), Melinda is led to believe that Robert is cheating on her again and the two divorce just before Robert gets his big break, all thanks to his former mistress.
Acrimony is a splendid hybrid of domestic drama crossed with the pulpy revenge thrillers that have made a comeback, albeit a faint one, in the form of Obsessed, Unforgettable, and When the Bough Breaks. It greatly surpasses similar but simple-minded Perry films like Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor despite its structural similarities; in this case, the bait-and-switch of how we're guided to view Melinda until the third-act. Unlike in Temptation, Acrimonydoesn't hamfist this change in perception of our main character, but rather shows her descent into inconsolable instability, the likes of which breed the aforementioned pulpy flavor this film offers in large doses.
Henson does a beautiful job bringing this complex character to life. At times she's tasked to play inexorably angry, while at others, she can barely muster the energy necessary to finish a sentence. Her demeanor realistically cycles from undeniably in charge to concerning in her passivity, and Henson is an actress who needs this kind of dimension because she's too good and too experienced to play the thin characters she's been given. It's also worth noting that Bent does a great job of playing his contemptible role as well, as does Madison, who plants the seeds of Robert's personality, defined by extravagant daydreaming as opposed to realistic planning and ungratefulness when burning through essentially all of his late mother-in-law's finances.
Unlike Boo 2!, a grossly incompetent, cheap-looking picture that could lead you to believe that Perry wasn't trying at all, Acrimony actually appears as if there was effort put into every phase of the production. Christopher Lennertz's score builds with apt tension and climactic synths that nicely embellish the discomfort. Cinematographer Richard J. Vialet, who also served the same role for Boo 2!, does several tricks with lighting to show stark contrasts in the three main living conditions shown throughout the film: Robert's initial RV, Melinda's mother's home, and Robert's eventual well-lit, quaintly decorated high-rise. While initially clunky, Larry Sexton's editing makes the frame-story effective rather than a deterrent, with Henson's narration employed sparingly so as not to distract from the on-screen happenings.
The third act is liable to turn heads for not only those who expected a Perry drama with some sense of plausibility, but those looking to see this bitingly scripted tale of domestic turmoil turn into a delicious thriller. Even as Perry piles the improbable atop the outlandish, Acrimony is ceaselessly entertaining and never compromised in its look nor storytelling. Perry gets his first great film since A Madea Christmas, Henson gets a showcase fit for her, and the long-successful filmmaker helming this project along with his team (should) get some much-deserved praise for choreographing one of the best films in his catalog.