Monday, November 8, 2010

Movie Review: For Colored Girls

For Colored Girls ** ½
Directed by:
Tyler Perry.
Written By: Tyler Perry based on the play by Ntozake Shange.
Starring: Kimberly Elise (Crystal / Brown), Janet Jackson (Jo / Red), Loretta Devine (Juanita / Green), Thandie Newton (Tangie / Orange), Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine / Yellow), Kerry Washington (Kelly / Blue), Tessa Thompson (Nyla / Purple), Phylicia Rashad (Gilda), Whoopi Goldberg (Alice / White), Macy Gray (Rose), Michael Ealy (Beau Willie), Omari Hardwick (Carl), Richard Lawson (Frank), Hill Harper (Donald), Khalil Kain (Bill).

It must be said that no matter what one thinks of Tyler Perry, that he is one of the most successful filmmakers in America right now. He makes 1 or 2 films a year for not that much money, casting actors who couldn’t open another movie if their lives depended on it, and comes away with hit after hit. He serves a market that pretty much every studio in the world ignores – African American Christians – and his legions of fans will follow him pretty much anywhere. I’m not sure what made Lions Gate take the chance on Perry in the first place with Diary of a Mad Black Woman – but it was the smartest business decision they ever made. Tyler Perry is a money making machine.

I have tried with Perry. I tried to connect with the material of his films, even though as a white agnostic I am pretty much as far away from his target demographic as I can get. Starting with 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman (which he wrote, but did not direct a job he would take over on all subsequent films) he has made 9 films – and I have seen seven of those films. For me, Perry’s films are a little too morally simplistic – people are either entirely good or entirely bad, there are no shades of grey or complex people involved. Perry’s direction is a pretty straight forward point and shoot style – and it took him a few films behind the camera to even get that right. I understand why people like these films, but I have to admit that they really are not for me. I had pretty much given up trying (which is why I hadn’t seen his last two films).

But I was interested to see what Perry would do with For Colored Girls. For the first time, he wasn’t working with his own material to begin with – instead he was adapting the highly successful play from the 1970s by Ntozak Shange. Could this film be a breakout for Perry, one that crosses over and makes him even more successful than he already is?

Sadly, the answer appears to be no. From what I understand, the play was a series of monologues by its main characters explaining their vastly different lives to the audience. This works on stage, not as much as a movie. Perry is smart enough to know that, and forces them into a huge web of interconnected stories a la Robert Altman, providing supporting characters and connective tissue to flesh out the play. He leaves many of the monologues intact though – and he lets his actresses loose on the material. Watching the movie, I kept thinking how much I would have loved to see the play – there are such juicy moments in the movie, ones that allow these great actresses a chance to truly dig their teeth into the types of roles that are all too rare for women – African American women in particular. Yet, the result is curiously uninvolving as well. It feels stage bound, despite Perry’s attempt to add visual flourishes at times (mostly, he shouldn’t have). His most effective moments behind the camera come during those monologues when he gets right into the face of the actresses, who are pouring out their souls.

And the actresses are great for the most part. Kimberly Elise is a woman dealing with an abusive boyfriend, while trying to hold down a job for a demanding, The Devil Wears Prada esque boss, and raise her two children. That boss is Janet Jackson, who is a high powered magazine editor, struggling with trust issues with her stock broker husband who feels insecure. Elise’s neighbor is Thandie Newton, a woman trying to exorcise the demons of her past by sleeping with pretty much any man who will have her. Newton’s mother is Whoopi Goldberg, who has grabbed hold of one of those new religious movements and won’t let go. Her other daughter is Tessa Thompson, a beautiful 16 year old, who has just lost her virginity, and now is pregnant. Thompson’s dance teacher is Anika Noni Rose, who lets her guard down with the new man in her life, because he seems so damn nice. There is also Kerry Washington as a Child Welfare worker, who because of a mistake in her past cannot get pregnant. Phylicia Rashad plays a woman who sees everything that goes on in her apartment building (where Elise and Newton both live) and has advice for everything. Lorretta Devine is a nurse, trying hard to educate the women in this poor area about sexual safety, all the while being taken advantage of by her boyfriend. And in one unforgettable scene (the only one where Perry’s new found experimental style actually works wonders) Macy Gray is a drunken, back room abortionist.

All of these actresses are very good to one extent or another – although Jackson’s brittle magazine exec feels forces right up until her final scene, which doesn’t quite come off either. My favorite was probably Newton, who is perfect as a party girl getting past her prime – although Thompson’s innocent teen in a situation beyond her control and the gut wrenching pain of Elise, and in one scene, Rose were excellent as well.

The problem is that even though For Colored Girls gives us great moments – they seem to remain isolated – not really part of the whole, but moments unto themselves. They don’t build on each other, and Perry doesn’t find smooth ways to get back and forth between storylines, and when they all crash together near the end it feels awkward. The film also goes on for too long – there is only so much constant pain and torment one can take, especially when it is this theatrical. The film moves uneasily from gritty realism to soap opera hysterics and back again, that I could never simply settle down and get into the film. It kept jerking me out of the moment.

Perhaps Perry should have pared down the number of characters in the film – or gone further in his rewrites and made the whole thing feel more organic and cinematic rather than a filmed play. Or perhaps he should have done just the opposite and fully embraced the theatricality of the piece, and simply let these actresses deliver their monologues, instead of forcing them into dramatic situations. I really don’t know the answer. For Colored Girls is a movie that never quite works, despite the great performances, despite the great moments. It is certainly a movie where the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

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