In “Fatal Attraction” (1987), the thriller that brought a new kind of possessed feminine rage to the screen, the Glenn Close character — a scorned Medusa — often did things that looked crazy; she stalked and terrorized, she flashed her demon smile, and she boiled a bunny. Yet there was a core of furious sanity to her lunacy. She’d been seduced and betrayed, and she stood in for all the women who had ever felt used in that way. She may have snapped, but on the movie’s terms she’d earned the right to go off her rocker.
“Tyler Perry’s Acrimony” is Perry’s off-the-wall, inside-out, topsy-turvy variation on “Fatal Attraction.” The central character, Melinda, played by Taraji P. Henson in what has become her trademark mode of this-one-goes-to-eleven wrath, looks out from the screen with an anger so coldly consuming it turns her skin to ash. The film opens in a courtroom, where Melinda, in purple lipstick, scowling like a kabuki puppet, is chastised by the judge for failing to obey a restraining order. We then see her in her therapist’s office, brooding and chain-smoking as she discusses the relationship that ruined her life.
What we hear on the soundtrack (and a lot of this movie — too much of it — is Taraji P. Henson telling us things on the soundtrack) is a narrative of absolute betrayal: the con man named Robert who seduced Melinda with his lies and his soft-spoken manner, and who took all her money, and kept lying and stealing and betraying. No wonder she felt like she had to get even. With every hoarse breath, she tells us: The bastard had it coming.
But everything that happens in “Acrimony” seems a little off-kilter, because the story the movie presents doesn’t track with the lurid fever dream of adultery that Melinda is telling us. And it’s not always clear where the disconnect is coming from. Melinda, as the film goes on, is revealed to be a deeply unreliable narrator. But the trouble with this love-story-from-hell thriller — and the reason it may leave even Perry’s fans scratching their heads — is that Perry, in “Acrimony,” is a grabby but unreliable filmmaker. He has made a scattershot drama in which overwrought feminine rage, diary-of-a-mad-woman craziness, and inept filmmaking are all but inseparable.
What makes it genuinely confusing is that for a while, at least, it seems as if Melinda is delivering the straight-up truth. In college, she meets Robert (the two are played by Ajiona Alexus, who plays the younger version of Henson on “Empire,” and Antonio Madison), and he seems the perfect handsome selfless dude. At least, until her mother’s funeral, when he exploits her grief to seduce her and then gets her to take $25,000 out of her inheritance to buy him a vintage car. Then he doesn’t call her for two days, and she shows up at the grungy trailer home he lives in, and — yes — he’s sleeping with someone else.
This is a little too much sleazy behavior too early on, but the real trouble with Robert is that he’s a flake and a sponger. He and Melinda stay together, and Robert, now played by the fascinatingly tense actor Lyriq Bent, is working on an invention that he says will make them rich: a self-charging battery he dreams of selling to the Prescott company. The company has a lottery system for looking at potential clients, and Robert spends years — like, literally, a decade — standing outside the corporate headquarters, trying to wrangle an appointment.
But if his crusade seems nuts (and it sort of does), it’s mostly in a cut-rate-filmmaking way, with Robert cast as a lazy and depressed mad scientist. After all, if he were really such a brilliant inventor, surely he could manage to land an appointment! There’s a racial-political subtext here (a black man without connections can’t just land an appointment), but the effect is to shore up the suspicion that Melinda is waiting around for a pipe dream that is destined not to happen. Robert keeps draining her finances (she’s forced to mortgage the home she inherited from her mother), and by sticking with him she appears to be colluding in the slow-motion destruction of her life. So can we really say that she’s been “betrayed”?
The hook of “Acrimony” is clear: The audience wants to see Taraji P. Henson go hog-wild with rage. And yes, that happens, once Melinda gets divorced and learns that the women who has replaced her will now reap the benefits she never enjoyed in her marriage. That’s a good subject for a domestic-jealousy thriller — except that the movie, by this point, has established that Melinda is a paranoid crackpot. And that raises the question: When the heroine of a demented soap opera has borderline personality disorder, does her anger come from the situation that allegedly provoked it — or is that just an excuse? “Acrimony” has too many coincidences, and none of it has much suspenseful grip, since the movie, which relies on Perry’s expository bluntness, isn’t crafted with enough cinematic cunning to draw us into the psychological states it depicts. It’s “Fatal Attraction” without the fateful power. By the time “Acrimony” reaches its Grand Guignol finale, it’s the movie that seems to have borderline personality disorder.