Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Taraji Two-Fer: Acrimony and Proud Mary

I watched two movies, both 2018 releases, with the powerhouse known as Taraji P. Henson in the lead role. Hmmm....let's see how this panned out.

Directed by Tyler Perry.
2018. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Lyriq Bent, Ajiona Alexus, Antonio Madison, Crystle Stewart, Danielle Nicolet, Jay Hunter, Bresha Webb, Jazmyn Simone.

We immediately meet Melinda (Henson), sitting in court being ordered by a judge to attend anger management therapy or she'll be thrown in jail. She's also ordered to "leave those people alone." Those people are her ex-husband Robert (Bent) and his soon-to-be new wife Diana (Stewart). We next see Melinda in therapy where she recounts the story that led her down the path to madness. It begins with her meeting Robert when the two started dating while they were in college. He's a big dreamer with hopes of inventing a battery that will change the world. The two fall in love and marry despite Melinda once catching Robert with another girl. At this age, by the way, the two are played by Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison, respectively. Anyhoo, in the midst of all this Melinda's mother dies and leaves her $350,000. Over the course of their marriage, this money goes to finance Robert's dream and, well, things continually escalate until we get back to that opening court scene and progress beyond that into Fatal Attraction territory.

Let's cut right to the chase. This movie suffers from lots of problems. The first and most noticeable is that it purposely negates its biggest strengths - its star and its director's ability to get great performances out of his actors. Taraji P. Henson is a force of nature that commands the screen. Whatever you may think of Tyler Perry, he excels at getting earnest, even dynamic, performances out of his female leads. However, the movie benches her immediately as we switch into flashback mode within the first ten minutes. For about half the film, we only hear Henson in voice-over while Ajiona Alexus plays Melinda. Perhaps she is used because she also plays the younger version of a Henson character on TV's Empire, but she presents the same problem for the audience in both cases. She's serviceable, but has nowhere near the gravitas of Henson. So, the entire time we're hearing Henson narrate we are wishing we were seeing her. The issue is the same for their male co-stars, but works in the opposite direction. Lyriq Bent, who plays Robert when he's older and Antonio Madison feel to be about equal, talent-wise. However, the personas don't quite line up. The younger Madison has a Donald Glover vibe to him, and the role fits him. Bent is naturally much more suave and often feels like a cool guy trying to play geeky. He's not terrible, but the transition is a bit jarring.

If the difference between the actors weren't jarring on its own, Perry made sure you received a jolt with one of the worst film-making decisions I've ever seen in a film that was actually trying to take itself seriously. Alexus and Madison handle the parts from the time the pair around 18 or 20 years old and play them until they're in their mid-to-late twenties. In most movies, if the actors are playing the role at that age, then some makeup is applied to them so they can see it through to the end. If there is a change in performers, it's because three or four decades have passed. But if you have Taraji P. Henson on your payroll, you gotta use her, right? Therefore, she takes over the part in the third act, as does Bent. The movie could get away with this if it didn't put a spotlight on the transition from one actor to another. Perry does this by having a shot of the characters, while standing in a mirror, morph into their final forms. It would be laughable under the best of circumstances, but the physical difference between Madison and Bent is so easily noticeable it prevents itself as an impossibility. Madison is an unassuming physical presence while Bent is mountainous specimen of man. The sudden appearance of muscles all over this character could be explained away, but not what seems to be an additional half-a-foot in height on a person who was already fully grown. Guess there's nothing like a growth spurt at thirty. The entire shot last one or two seconds, but is emblematic of a larger problem with the film. It doesn't seem like a whole lot of thought was put into how the various elements would come together.

To help him turn this massive jumble of parts into a cohesive whole, Tyler Perry has to rely on the writing to guide him. Unfortunately, Perry did the writing, too, and that's the weakest part of his game. He can do jokes. Since his brand of humor is highly subjective he's a riot to some and not funny at all to others. He can also do big, (melo-)dramatic scenes where one of his characters gives some anguished soliloquy, often of the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar variety. This movie includes several, but the basic tenets of storytelling needed to make these moments take the visuals they're attached to and give them resonance is missing. Nearly everything that happens does so because of the easily transparent needs of the plot. For starters, there are just a ridiculous amount of unbelievable coincidences used to push us through the film. The only way these wouldn't be miraculous is if the only people to exist in the Acrimony universe are the ones with speaking parts. By the time we get to the finale, Perry swaps out coincidences for flat-out defying the laws of physics. It's a scene far more fitting a Friday the 13th movie than the one we've been watching for roughly an hour and forty minutes by the time this part get cranking. When it does, the absurdities pile up to astounding heights until the movie mercifully ends.

There is an even bigger stumbling block than Perry haphazardly slapping his plot together. It's him apparently not understanding the way his chosen genre works. This film wants to join the ranks of the aforementioned Fatal Attraction and all of its lesser clones about scorned women turned psycho stalkers. His first mistake is that he tells the story from the psycho's point of view. In this case, it doesn't work because Robert isn't some evil man toying with Melinda's emotions. Sure, he's got some issues and caused Melinda some pain and heartache, but ultimately, her predicament is entirely of her own making. The decision she made is hardly one can blame her for, but it is one that makes her actions impossible to defend in light of what Robert does after it is made. There are, and have been, good films made from the point of view of a nutjob, but there is good reason these types of movies are generally told through the eyes of the people being stalked. It's much easier to generate empathy and the motivations of the stalker can be chalked up to a quick bit of exposition and/or a flashback scene. It's harder to justify unjustifiable acts when the person committing them is the focus of your film. The very least that should be done is making sure they have a legitimate beef, even if  their actions are way over the top. The movie builds up to that, but then goes well beyond the point it should. If I had to guess why, I'd say it's a reaction to the criticism Perry has received throughout the course of his career for his often negative portrayal of black men. The critiques are well-earned, but perhaps should have been ignored to make this particular film work. I say that as both a black man and one who has made the same observations about Perry's previous work. In the grand scheme of things, I agree, we don't need another movie telling us that black men are no good. However, on a micro level the film Tyler Perry has given us just doesn't make sense without a woman who has truly been scorned. Regardless of that simple fact, he still tries mightily to get us on her side. He does this by doubling up. For the entirety of the first two acts, we get scenes of young Melinda doing something accompanied by older Melinda telling us the exact same thing as narrator. Instead of showing us a woman coming undone because of a no-good man, the film is trying to force-feed us the idea.

All of this leads me back to one of the director's strengths. He knows what his audience wants. The emphasis is on his. I honestly believe no other director has their finger on the pulse of their fans quite like Tyler Perry. It's made him critic-proof. No matter what any of us wannabe experts write or say, we won't stop his train. The crowds that turn up to his movies eat up whatever he dishes out. The box office proves it time and time again. In case I actually needed proof I got it, live and in-person. I saw it in a packed theater on its opening weekend. After two hours of absolutely incompetent film-making caused audible groans to emanate from myself and few others, something happened that confirmed the hypothesis I formed years ago - that Tyler Perry is an unstoppable force. As the credits and my eyes started rolling uncontrollably. I heard a smattering of applause. I cackled maniacally, shook my fist at the screen, and like a villain left alive at the end of yet another of the hero's adventures, I proclaimed, "I'll get you next time, Mr. Madea. Next time."

Proud Mary
Directed by Babak Najafi.
2018. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di'Allo, Danny Glover, Billy Brown, Neal McDonough, Xander Berkeley, Rade Serbedzija.

Mary (Henson) is a a professional hitwoman employed full-time by a big-time crime family. During a job, she takes out her target, but can't bring herself to kill his very young son Danny (Winston). She spares his life, but leaves the boy there. Fast-forward a few years and Mary happens to come across the kid while he's working for a rival family and getting cheated. The kid puts himself in danger when he tries to take matters into his own hands. Of course, Mary's guilty conscience makes her take the boy in and try to keep him safe.

For the most part, this is pretty standard action fare. The chemistry between Henson and her young co-star is nice and helps the film through some of the slower moments. In fact, the performances all around are pretty solid with the star capably commanding the screen. However, she is not the highlight of the cast. That honor belongs to Danny Glover who seems to be having a grand time as Mary's boss/father figure. The finale is fun, as we get to see Henson go action-chick, but it's nothing that's going to blow you away. It doesn't do anything egregiously bad and shouldn't get the hate that it's been getting. On the other hand, it's just mediocre, a time-passer that you'll likely forget once it's over.


  1. I do love Taraji P. Henson as I was happy to see she put a curse on Ryan Seacrest at the Oscar red carpet. I wish she was given better movies to be in.

    1. She definitely needs better projects. At least Hidden Figures was good.

  2. I love Taraji, I wish these directors would do her justice. The marketing for Proud Mary was atrocious.

    1. It was a bit confusing - hard to figure out if it were set in the present or in the 70s or how seriously it took itself.

  3. I was excited for Proud Mary when I saw the trailer but it lost all its steam.\

    I tend to like Tyler Perry a lot more than I like Tyler Perry movies but I suspect I'll give this one a chance - I do love Taraji.