While "Tyler Perry's Acrimony" doesn't quite live up to its stylish trailer -- that water-torture sound design promises a floodgate that will burst at any moment -- it's the kind of "women's picture" that used to be Joan Crawford's bread and butter, the sort that allows its star to glamorously lose her grip in a succession of great outfits.
We don't have Crawford anymore, but Perry has Taraji P. Henson, and together they gnash their way through this entertaining potboiler. And while Perry has been known for saintly heroines and nasty villains, this movie finds a space in between, where good people commit terrible acts, and vice versa, leaving us with more shades of grey than this filmmaker usually bothers to find.
Henson stars as Melinda and, as the film opens, a judge is warning her to obey the restraining order placed against her by her ex Richard (Lyriq Bent, Netflix's "She's Gotta Have It") and his fiancée Diana (Crystle Stewart, "For Better or Worse). Forced by the judge to attend anger-management therapy, Melinda tells her story to the off-screen therapist. (I wish Perry had cast Jurnee Smollett-Bell to reprise her role from "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor," but you can't have everything.)
Melinda's story begins in college (Ajiona Alexus, who plays Henson's younger self on "Empire," does so here as well) meeting junior Robert (Antonio Madison). At first she's not interested, but soon she's not only sleeping with him but also financially supporting him with a car and tuition as he pursues his dreams of inventing a self-charging battery. He cheats on her once, with Diana (Shavon Kirksey), but after an infuriated Melinda knocks over his RV with her jeep, he remains devoted to her.
Years go by, and Melinda works multiple jobs to keep them afloat while Robert's battery goes nowhere. His fortune changes when he re-encounters Diana (now played by Crystle Stewart), who is working at the local tech company where Robert has pitched his battery idea. Through a series of misunderstandings -- including a key scene apparently left on the cutting-room floor -- Melinda thinks Robert is cheating again with Diana, and throws him out. Soon thereafter, his ship comes in, and he makes generous financial restitution to Melinda. He also plans to marry Diana, however, which makes his put-upon first wife snap.
This isn't the deepest plot, but compared to the usual saints-vs-sinners tales that Perry has offered up over the course of 19 feature films he's written, "Acrimony" takes us to whole new levels of complexity. (Not that he's lost his crowd-pleasing instincts, although even the broad-strokes third act will leave viewers wondering who they're rooting for, and why.)
On a technical level, this is one of Perry's best looking movies, with only two terrible green-screen sequences of young Melinda and Richard walking along the waterway (Atlanta fills in for Pittsburgh here) standing out as jarringly unconvincing. The score by Christopher Lennertz ("A Bad Mom's Christmas") tightens up the tension in the right places (even without the use of those water drops), and cinematographer Richard J. Vialet ("Boo 2! A Madea Halloween") skillfully uses lighting to differentiate between Melinda and Richard's working-class digs, the bourgeois living of Melinda's judgmental sisters and the lifestyle-magazine sheen of Richard's life with Diana.
The real reason we're here is, of course, for Henson, and she squeezes every drop from this rich character. (Alexus, for her part, deserves plenty of credit for setting up many of Henson's payoffs.) "Acrimony" may be glib about Melinda's mental illness -- once the off-screen therapist mentions "borderline personality disorder," Melinda bolts from her office -- but Henson makes us understand this woman, even when she's destroying herself and everyone around her. (She also maneuvers a lit cigarette as well as anyone since, well, Crawford herself.)
If Perry's audiences go into "Acrimony" expecting a "Waiting to Exhale"-style romp about women done wrong, they're in for something else entirely. But what they'll get is evidence that the prolific writer-director may have something interesting to say even in movies where Madea is nowhere to be found.