*Press screenings of Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” took place this week in advance of its Nov. 5 opening, and based on reviews from the two major Hollywood trade magazines, Oscar buzz has gone out the window.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt called it “a train wreck of a movie” that “utterly butchers Ntozake Shange’s theatrical tone poem.”
Variety’s Peter Debruge said “For Colored Girls” marks “an advance for Tyler Perry as well as a big step back,” adding, “Perry has unmistakably wrestled ‘girls’ into the same soap-opera mold of his earlier pics, connecting the passionate testimonials with clichéd characterizations and two-bit psychoanalysis.”
Both critics, however, said there were strong performances among the ensemble cast, which includes Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Kerry Washington and Thandie Newton. The reviewers also noted how much of a challenge it is for any filmmaker to adapt a staged choreopoem into a linear, theatrical movie.
Unfortunately, neither critic thought Perry pulled it off.
Variety’s Peter Debruge writes:
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).
Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt writes:
Building manager Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) has her eye on the situation as well as the one across the hall where Tangie (Thandie Newton) entertains a different man every night. Tangie’s Bible-toting mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), and a younger sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), occupy an apartment downstairs, which keeps a kind of demilitarized zone between members of the warring family. Meanwhile, Juanita (Loretta Devine) down the hall fails to listen to her own advice as a nurse who runs a women’s clinic at a community center when she continually lets a two-timing guy back into her life.
Others who get connected to the building include Kelly (Kerry Washington), a social worker who responds to Gilda’s call about child abuse and inexplicably does nothing about it, and Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), who teaches dance to Nyla.
The male characters other than Hill Harper’s police detective are all sick cartoons, existing only to perpetuate horrors on the women. In Perry’s peculiar view, though, the women often collaborate in their victimhood. They invite the stranger into the home or let men stay when they clearly should go. They all fall from grace.
When reciting Shange’s words, the actresses often achieve moments of splendor. Some even achieve dignity within the hoary melodrama. This is especially true of Rashad, who acts as a kind of Greek chorus; Elise, whose character must cope with unspeakable tragedy; and Rose, who must search for an outlet for her rage and humiliation. Read Honeycutt’s entire Hollywood Reporter review here.
Variety’s Debruge also singled out certain performances in the film for praise:
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.