Taraji P. Henson in Tyler Perry's Acrimony

TYLER PERRY'S ACRIMONY

Sometimes it seems as if very, very little separates a wretched Tyler Perry movie from a … . Well, not from a great Tyler Perry movie, because he hasn't yet made one of those. (He probably came closest with 2010's For Colored Girls, but those results were likely aided by Perry's choice to adapt a Tony-nominated Ntozake Shange play.) The auteur, however, has certainly made his share of terrifically entertaining movies, and for almost its entire length, I couldn't tell whether Tyler Perry's Acrimony was a stunningly confused and ineffective melodrama or an oddly irresistible one. Days after seeing it, I'm still not sure – though I've seen plenty of far-worse films that weren't nearly this embarrassing, and plenty of much-better movies that weren't half this much fun.

A few seconds of its trailers are really all you need to suss out Acrimony's potential appeal: Taraji P. Henson is back, and the woman is pissed. (She was also back, and also pissed, in January's Proud Mary, but audiences have likely already forgotten it.) At first, and as the previews not-so-subtly hinted, you may think you're at yet another tale of a wronged spouse getting revenge while her wronging other gets his just desserts. As Henson's Melinda speaks to an off-camera therapist and events unfurl in flashback, we learn how the woman's first love and eventual husband Robert, though seemingly sweet and solicitous, spent their early months together coercing Melinda to pay for his last two semesters of college (no!), draining Melinda's savings (no-o-o!), and cheating on her in his ramshackle RV (no-o-o-o-o!!!). But Melinda, fool that she was, took him back, agreed to marry him, and spent their next 18 years together quietly building a grudge as Robert attempted to build a self-charging battery that he promised her would net them a fortune. Eventually, it all became too much for Melinda, and she kicked him to the curb. But then Robert did build the battery, and it did net him a fortune. And that's when Melinda lost it.

In theory, that's a perfectly acceptable setup for an enjoyably cheesy revenge thriller, right? A man takes a woman for all she's worth and then hits it big the second he's out of the house? Yet that's not quite what happens here. Yes, Robert's single-minded pursuit of his business venture causes Melinda to lose the house that her mother bequeathed her. But after his battery sells, he buys the house back for her. And yes, Robert spent Melinda's $300,000 inheritance. But then he pays her back … with a check for 10 million dollars. He's also unfailingly apologetic – sincerely so – for the emotional pain he caused her, and the financial hardship, and wants desperately to make amends. Are we still, somehow, meant to root for Henson – I mean Melinda – to become an incensed Facebook stalker to Robert's new fiancée, and to pour acid on the woman's wedding dress, and to show up at the couple's honeymoon yacht with her full Glenn-Close-burning-bunnies-on-the-stove freak on?

Taraji P. Henson and Lyriq Bent in Tyler Perry's Acrimony

I honestly don't know. I don't think Perry knows. He appears so desperate to get a rise out of audiences through whatever means necessary that he never explores the motives of any of his Acrimony figures, and he has his actors hitting wildly incompatible notes throughout. Is Melinda a victim or a monster? Is Robert a sadistic user or a hard-luck dreamer? Are the many hangers-on – among them Melinda's two sisters who eternally travel in tandem – characters or mere mouthpieces? From scene to scene, you can't get a read on anything here. Melinda tells her therapist a sympathetic tale of her beau's hardscrabble life, and then counters it by screeching, “And then he didn't call me for two whole days!!!” (Henson invests the line with such fury you'd think the guy set her mother on fire.) Robert spends 18 years trying to sell his battery concept to a Pittsburgh-based investment company, and through all his years of rejection, never once thinks to, you know, try selling it somewhere else. No one's ridiculous behavior is explained, or even properly addressed, and the unresolved nature of Perry's dangling plot threads is so egregious that, at the finale, I actually heard something I never before had at a Tyler Perry outing: the sound of a vocally antagonistic crowd. (Several patrons at my screening actually booed, and one demanded to know, “What was that shit?!”)

Still, stupid as Perry's latest is, there's a good deal to enjoy – by which I mean there's a good deal of Taraji P. Henson to enjoy. Lyriq Bent does some fine, understated work as Robert, and Lord knows the movie is too lunatic to ever be boring. But it's Henson who keeps you watching and, for the most part, riveted, from her first incensed rebuttal to Melinda's therapist (“Bitch, are you not listening to me?!”) to the scene that finds her quietly, determinedly smoking a cigarette that you're almost positive is going to wind up stubbed out in Robert's eye. No performer alive could pull off the obscene tonal vacillations and stunningly incoherent personality switcheroos that Tyler Perry's Acrimony expects of her, and Henson doesn't, either. But damn is she watchable. Would that I had watched her in something else.

Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner in Paul, Apostle of Christ

PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST and GOD'S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS

Ever since the 2004 Ash Wednesday opening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, film studios have used the Lenten season to debut any number of nonsecular entertainments – as though releasing pro-faith movies were akin to going six weeks without red meat on Fridays, or briefly enjoying a seafood option at Wendy's. None of these works has had anywhere near the staggering impact, either culturally or in terms of ticket sales, of The Passion, and more than a few of them have been tacky beyond belief. (One need only travel back six weeks, to Samson, for an example of the latter.) But this year, as we inched toward Easter, audiences were treated to a couple of legitimately solid options in the Biblical drama Paul, Apostle of Christ and the franchise continuation God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. While both are problematic, they're also far more engaging than a lot of similar offerings of their type, and if you happened to catch one or both of them when this past weekend started, you were perhaps as pleased as I was that, movie-wise, Good Friday was also Really-Not-Bad Friday.

An imagining of the final days of its titular figure, a notorious persecutor of Christians whose ultimate conversion made him a fierce proponent of Jesus' teachings, writer/director Andrew Hyatt's Paul, Apostle of Christ finds Paul (James Faulkner), in 67 A.D., awaiting execution after Emperor Nero sentences him to death for his perceived threat to the Roman Empire. The evangelist Luke (Jim Caviezel), meanwhile, risks his own imprisonment by visiting Paul and collecting his friend's memories for the eventual writing of the Acts of the Apostles. Paul's jailer Mauritius (Olivier Martinez) struggles with his beliefs as his young daughter grows fatally ill. And through it all, Roman Christians in hiding are routinely captured, tortured, and murdered, many of them crucified and set on fire in town squares. Happy Lent, everyone!

Obviously, this is solemn and downbeat stuff, and the thematic weight is sadly echoed in the pacing, which is deliberate to the point of sluggishness, and the photography, which is murky to the point of no return. (At times, it's like watching a 2D film from behind hue-diminishing 3D glasses.) Yet Hyatt's outing, especially for its genre, still works, and works unexpectedly well. Subtle, rather beautiful portrayals are delivered by the leads and the supporting Joanne Whalley and John Lynch, the conversations are mildly modernized without sounding anachronistic, and there are a number of truly moving sequences, from Paul's slow regaining of his eyesight following a miraculous vision to the heart-rending climax – surely one of the most rueful beheadings in movie history. And while a tad more levity wouldn't have been out of place even under such dire circumstances, I'm glad that The Passion star Caviezel's Paul, Apostle of Christ performance was just distinct enough, Biblically speaking, to not warrant meta-commentary. It would've really killed the mood for a character to turn to Luke and say, “You know who you look exactly like … ?”

David A.R. White and Shane Harper in God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness

That sort of cheekiness, however, is on unexpectedly ample display in writer/director Michael Mason's God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the third and thus-far-finest installment in this contemporary-Christian series that began with 2014's out-of-nowhere sleeper hit. Bypassing the familiar Nashville-esque formula that intertwined numerous storylines involving distinct spiritual crises, Mason's endeavor focuses most of its attention on the latest travails of the lovable, eternally hangdog Reverend Dave Hill (played, as always, by David A.R. White), whose faith is severely tested when an apparent, though accidental, act of arson in his Arkansas church leads to the death of his best friend Jude. (That A Light in Darkness dispenses with franchise highlight Benjamin A. Onyango in its first 10 minutes demonstrates a brave willingness to shake things up right off the bat.) Before long, there are campus protests and televised debates and edicts demanding that the church be torn down, and all looks grim for Reverend Dave, and for us, until the man's brother sweeps into town – a grinning, sardonic, thrice-divorced defense attorney played by John Corbett. I'd reference the last time I was so happy to see a new addition to a long-standing film series, but I'm not sure when that would've been.

This second sequel boasts many of the same unfortunate elements of previous Deads, including largely amateurish compositions and cinematography, a plethora of overwritten passages, and an overall crippling air of victimhood. (At one point, our hero moans, “I'm so tired of Christians being pushed around and turning the other cheek.” Let's hope he never rents Paul, Apostle of Christ.) Several of the performers are also distractingly weak, among them the cast's Oscar winner – though, in truth, Tatum O'Neal is hardly Meryl Streep. (And hey, it could've been worse. It could've been Roberto Benigni. Or … Roberto Benigni.) But Corbett, who's sensationally playful here and clearly enjoying himself, completely buoys the movie's mood, lending it considerable comedic and dramatic heft and, with White, evincing a wholly credible, deeply satisfying brotherly tension. There are expertly written and acted scenes of legitimate frustration and anger, the best one landing when Reverend Dave's privileged complaints are immediately shot down by a black colleague. (As played by the superb Gregory Alan Williams, this longtime preacher in the Deep South sets his friend straight: “I could build you a church with all the bricks thrown through my windows.”) And White, who's like a more grounded Owen Wilson, finally gets the showcase that his character, and his natural talent, have long deserved. If the briskly paced, commendably thoughtful, surreptitiously funny God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness is the series' last installment, as the film's meager opening-weekend box office suggests, at least it's going out on a high note. If not, at least we'll get more time with Reverend Dave. Win-win, really.

 

For reviews of Ready Player One, The Death of Stalin, and the Putnam Museum's Oceans: Our Blue Planet, visit “Culture Pop.”

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