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MOVIE REVIEW: Tyler Perry takes on too much in 'For Colored Girls'

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

For Colored Girls

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

It is rare when Atlanta-based filmmaker Tyler Perry screens one of his films for the press. Almost all of Perry's movies are lightweight comedies that are essentially critic proof, but "For Colored Girls" is neither lightweight nor a comedy and is the kind of film where positive critical reviews will be crucial to raising mass-audience interest.

In addition to being Perry's first "R" rated feature, it's also the only one that didn't originate with him. Based on the 1977 Tony-nominated play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" by Ntozake Shange, it is going to be a hard sell to Perry's dedicated followers or even those already familiar with the play.

To Perry's credit, he's taken an abstract work that was essentially unfilmable in its original incarnation and transformed it into a movie that adheres to a far more commercial framework. Instead of six solitary characters referred to only as colors, Perry has nine co-leads with real names and distinct personalities that provide considerable interactive dramatic friction. He's also managed to wedge in tiny slivers of much-needed comic relief. Perry the writer/producer has done his homework here and it shows.

In attempting to present such a tricky, six-degrees-of-separation, fragmented story, Perry the director might have attempted a project beyond his reach. This is not a slam against Perry per se; few if any directors could pull off something this intricate and complex. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, a young Spike Lee or the late Robert Altman, but that's about it.

The dialogue in Shange's play is almost exclusively poetic, jazz-influenced verse. When performed as monologues, this type of flowing, free-form riffing can be quite effective, but if you mix it with everyday speech, as Perry has done here, it loses its desired impact and kills the suspension of disbelief. It's the same thing that happens in musicals when speaking characters instantly break into song, only here there's no singing or music and it all comes off as terribly calculating and affected.

Rightfully held in high esteem by actresses and female audiences as a man with a firm grasp on feminine issues, Perry's depiction of black women here will strike viewers as generally accurate, but also in a mostly negative, often contradictory light.

A deeply religious woman (Whoopi Goldberg) physically abuses her two daughters. One of them (a perfect Thandie Newton pinch-hitting for Mariah Carey) is good with money but is also sexually promiscuous. A savvy businesswoman (Janet Jackson) cracks the whip at work yet is slow to acknowledge that her boy-toy husband is on the down low. A committed health-care specialist (Loretta Devine) keeps taking back a man she knows is cheating on her. The most disturbing is the character played by Kimberly Elise, a woman who flatly refuses to marry the abusive, alcoholic father of her two children yet never considers leaving him.

Faring far better are Phylicia Rashad playing a sharp-tongued, busybody neighbor, Kerry Washington as a dedicated social worker and a dance instructor (Anika Noni Rose) whose only weaknesses are being too trusting and naive.

Compared to the male characters in the movie, every woman depicted is downright saintly. With a single exception, all of the men are low-life snakes whose actions are at best deplorable and at worst punishable by death. Rarely has any film shown men -- black men specifically -- so evil, useless and vile -- and there's the rub.

What the overlong film achieves on artistic levels is mostly negated by a blanket indictment pinned on a segment of a single race of people who mostly make often intentionally wrong decisions. What's perhaps most disturbing is that Tyler Perry can make this kind of movie without fearing any kind of backlash, yet if it was directed by someone like Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese or even Penny Marshall, the uproar would be immediate and deafening. (Lionsgate)