Ever wonder what Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia might have looked like if all the characters had been black women? You probably haven't, but still, for about an hour that's what Tyler Perry seems to be shooting for with For Colored Girls, his adaptation of the renowned play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
By focusing on the profoundly troubled lives of nine African-American women, Perry gives every member of his large ensemble the chance to take center stage. Kimberly Elise dominates the proceedings as Crystal, the forever put-upon personal secretary for powerful magazine editor Jo (Janet Jackson). Crystal must constantly protect herself and her two children from her mentally unbalanced veteran husband (Michael Ealy), whose war experiences left him with deep emotional scars. They live across the hall from Tangie (Thandie Newton), a bartender who brings home a different man every night and has a strained relationship with both her deeply religious mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and her college-bound younger sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson). Tangie rebuffs Nyla when she asks her big sister for financial help, which the teenager claims is for college but will actually pay to end her unwanted pregnancy. Nyla's dance instructor, Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), suffers at the hands of a possible new boyfriend, and Juanita (Loretta Devine), who runs a local women's health clinic, constantly struggles with her on-again, off-again boyfriend.
To put it mildly, the emotions in Tyler Perry films are generally operatic, and that's usually why his films collapse in a pile of overheated melodrama. However, possibly because he's juggling so many characters, the first half of For Colored Girls doesn't have time to sink. He nimbly introduces us to everybody, and the actors are all solid, making an impression on us even with such an outsized cast. For a while it seems that Perry has figured out how to damp down his over-the-top instincts. But then comes a scene so punishingly brutal, so dark, and so emotionally manipulative, that the entire project derails and never fully recovers.
Part of the movie's problem stems from its structure. The play is a series of poems and dances, not a dramatic series of scenes. Perry includes many of these poems throughout the movie, and while audiences are likely to scoff at these characters breaking off into highfalutin oratorical flourishes, the monologues do work -- these performers are more than capable of making the language sing. The problem is that the poems are so full of grand feelings that we don't need the conventional narrative Perry constructs around them. It's an axiom of good screenwriting that you either show something or tell something -- doing both is a waste of time -- and in For Colored Girls, the poems tell us what we need to know, often making the framing devices redundant.
Kimberly Elise fares the best of everyone in the cast, somehow managing to make her character's turmoil feel like it's happening to a real person as opposed to some representation of all womankind. Phylicia Rashad shines as the caretaker of the apartment building they share, smartly downplaying her character's saintly virtuosity. In fact, considering the level of tumult all the characters live at, it's quite an achievement that nobody drops the ball performance-wise.
In the end, though, Perry doesn't know how to make the swirling emotions in his movies dynamic. He can't find the right balance of humor, pathos, and tenderness to carry us along, so he simply floods the viewer with tears. In many ways, For Colored Girls is his most accomplished piece of filmmaking, but there's still so much room for improvement.