It’s not “Precious,” but “For Colored Girls” marks an advance for Tyler Perry, as well as a big step back. In adapting Ntozake Shange’s Tony-nominated play — a cycle of poetic monologues about abuse, abortion and other issues facing modern black women, rather than a traditional narrative — the do-it-all auteur demonstrates an ambition beyond any of his previous work. And yet the result falls squarely in familiar territory, better acted and better lit, perhaps, but more inauthentically melodramatic than ever. Perry’s faithful should ensure a healthy berth for his 10th feature, while cast and pedigree will give “Girls” longer legs.
Perry was considered a controversial choice to direct Shange’s celebrated “choreopoem,” and understandably so. Though the text of the playwright’s most affecting poems is virtually intact, Perry has unmistakably wrestled “Girls” into the same soap-opera mold of his earlier pics, connecting the passionate testimonials with cliched characterizations and two-bit psychoanalysis.
In Shange’s original 1975 show, seven African-American dancers, each dressed in a different color and identified not by name but by their place in the spectrum, alternate time in the spotlight, while serving as a form of support network for the others. Each represents specific individual challenges facing black women, even as the group presents the community’s collective experience. But if the intention, as suggested by Shange’s original title (“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf”), was to offer universal, easily identifiable experiences, then Perry’s handling has regrettably diluted the effect into a series of interconnected stock stories.
The mere act of translating “For Colored Girls” to film forces fundamental and unfortunate changes on the material, softening and reducing the archetypes to specific characters. Perhaps the most fully formed of the ensemble is Crystal, inspired by “Lady in Red’s” abused-lover tale and played by Kimberly Elise, star of Perry’s 2005 bigscreen debut, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Where the show used mere words to paint the long-suffering mother’s unhappy existence, here we see the sad confines of her life and meet the broken war veteran (Michael Ealy) who crosses the line trying to convince her to marry him. It all seems small by comparison, the performers so obviously play-acting, the situation so transparently false.
While those color-coded ladies once hailed from all over — outside Houston, Chicago, Detroit and so on — they’ve now been crammed under the roof of a single Harlem apartment building, the exception being Crystal’s employer, Jo (Janet Jackson), a high-powered magazine editor who shares a sleek Gotham pad with her emasculated husband (Omari Hardwick), who leads a double life on the down-low. Jo’s story feels the most patently Perry-fied thing about the film, reflecting the director’s tendency to tackle key issues through pat, gently preachy examples (he similarly inserts lessons on contraception, venereal disease and religious fanaticism into other subplots). “Girls” never feels more like daytime television than in the scene where the couple have it out, back-to-back in an awkwardly blocked argument.
The overcrowded ensemble also includes Thandie Newton as a liberated bartender who uses sex to address a personal shortcoming; Tessa Thompson as the kid sister whom Perry curiously saddles with both the virginity-losing and abortion-suffering poems; Whoopi Goldberg as a woman too consumed in her beliefs to tend to earthly concerns; Kerry Washington as a child welfare worker who too-ironically can’t conceive; Loretta Devine as a relationship counselor with equally on-the-nose troubles in her own love life; and Anika Noni Rose as a dance instructor whose infectiously upbeat attitude can’t last long. Stoically observing it all is a neighbor played by Phylicia Rashad, who withholds her own secrets and consequently feels like the film’s weakest link (she might have been a better vessel for the “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” piece).
There’s some great acting being done here (including a chilling cameo from Macy Gray as a back-alley abortionist), but the cameras aren’t where they need to be to capture it, and the editing isn’t properly calibrated to shape what the performers are dishing out. Even the poetry feels flat, delivered in a lower key than the dialogue Perry penned himself. Though the helmer films partly in New York for the first time, he relies once again on his usual stable of collaborators, including d.p. Alexander Gruszynski, editor Maysie Hoy, production designer Ina Mayhew (with her sitcom-style sets) and composer Aaron Zigman (offering a minimalist, Clint Eastwood-style score), which suggests the team may be holding him back.
While Perry’s craft has slowly but surely improved with each successive film, this latest project seems to fall beyond his reach. Just as the director was finding the organic quality that eluded him in “Diary” and other early efforts, he’s confronted with a conceptual piece that calls for an entirely different approach. Yet he can’t resist turning “For Colored Girls” into a Tyler Perry Movie, which means imposing diva worship where nuance is called for and a pleasure-punishing Christian worldview where a certain moral ambiguity might have been more appropriate.