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The mini-mogul’s not laughing in “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony”

Taraji P. Henson tells Lyriq Bent how it’s gonna be

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Tyler Perry’s improbable career has been based on a step-by-step process, a seemingly carefully orchestrated implementation of a plan to master and command the narrative feature format. He began writing a series of stage plays, morality-based tales that catered to the values of an under-represented audience. He traveled a circuit of neighborhood centers, churches, and small auditoriums, preaching his gospel of life’s hard knocks and old school tough love, then figured out how to transition his good news stories to the big screen.

And his run of movies has coincided with my time as an alt-weekly film critic. I had been on the job a year by the time “Madea’s Family Reunion” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and his crossing over into the feature film world generated lots of attention. Was this the start of a black cinema movement?

To a certain extent, it was. Perry catered to an under-appreciated market with a singular focus. His early morality plays (“Madea’s Family Reunion” and “I Can Do Bad All By Myself”) revolved around a larger-than-life matriarch Madea (Perry in Flip Wilson drag mode) who bucked social order with equal doses of tough talk and a willingness to get dirty in order to right an obvious wrong. Later on, once he was able to corral recognizable talent, Perry dabbled in more conventional soapy melodramas (“Why Did I Get Married” and its sequel), which led to Perry wandering down his version of the dark side, a stereotypical hood where single parents struggle to make ends meet and lovers (usually female) suffer at the hands of feckless fellows until God places His hand on the scale and/or fate dares to smile on these unfortunate souls for one shining moment.

Along the way, Perry met up with Taraji P. Henson, back in 2009 with his updating of “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” and seized on her hard-biting persona, a world-weary woman perpetually straddling the line salvation and sin. When in the right hands (“Smokin’ Aces” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Henson’s rough diamonds can cut through the darkness seeking to contain her.

The tagline for “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” —Hell hath no fury— plays off her ability to transform anger and vengeance in a brand-new weapon of mass destruction. I love the idea of Henson, but absolutely hate how she’s rendered onscreen. She’s a fury of mythic proportions, an avenging angel of the highest order. The kind of figure that needs no CGI or choreographed moves to put a hurting on anyone who crosses her. Henson has a withering gaze that could put Medusa to shame—who needs to turn men to stone for all eternity when you can blink an offender out of existence?

When we catch up with her at the beginning of “Acrimony,” as Melinda, she’s in full flipped-out mode. Sitting in a courtroom barely listening to a judge inform her that she needs to respect a restraining order or face jail time, we can see right away that she ain’t having it. Melinda is about to do whatever Melinda needs to do to get her own brand of justice. Before long, she’s sitting in therapy, filling her therapist (and us) in on how her man (portrayed as a young adult by Antonio Madison and later by Lyriq Bent) mistreated her. From cheating to sucking her dry (financially and emotionally), it’s clear that she’s got a case, but we can’t overlook the fact that Melinda not only needs to claim some responsibility for her situation, but that she’s more than a little unstable.

These two sides of things don’t give Henson much room for nuance. Perry sets up a scenario where Henson can either play angry or crazy, variations on the same old theme she’s been plunking away at for years. It’s a stereotype that never seems to get old for Perry, although I think his audience might be ready for something new.

In my case, I’m rooting for Henson. I long to see her play against this type because I bet she would make quite the sexy lover. All she needs is a Pam Grier style ”Jackie Brown” kind of vehicle that is world-weary and honestly desperate for a change. Who’s more in need of change than Henson? A little less “Acrimony” and a lot more time away from Perry might do us all a world of good.

Rating: R; Grade: F