Tyler Perry’s strange amalgamation of panicky social melodrama and the pained poems of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 stage play reaches a climax of extended monological lunacy. This seemingly endless sequence of lyrical soliloquies played — quite, quite erroneously — as dialogue (the answers to calls or the calls to answers instead of cries hanging unanswered in a darkened theater) surpasses even the manipulative level of the double murder that ends the second act.

For Colored Girls, a fundamental reinterpretation even at the title (shortened from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (and even that has been arranged over time into a more grammatically proper form) into something innocuous), is dramatic chaos. For all its inherent mistakes, it is somehow still abundantly clear that Perry is quite deliberate in his choices. He wants the bedlam of tone and language; the confusion is the only way to achieve the ends of portraying condemnation and punishment as kindness and morality.

The narrative encompasses the lives of nine women, tied together primarily by a single apartment complex. After a brief introduction to them using a shared poem to connect them transcendentally across minds, the movie begins tying them together in a straighter, physical way.

Tangie (Thandie Newton) lives in one apartment and sends a one-night stand out on the street. Her neighbor Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) looks on in judgment, while their mutual neighbor Crystal (Kimberly Elise) receives a visit from social worker Kelly (Kerry Washington). Crystal’s husband Beau Willie (Michael Ealy) is an abusive, unemployed veteran who scares Kelly away.

On the street, she bumps into Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), a dance instructor who’s being pitifully and continually wooed by Bill (Khalil Kain), a man she’s just met by chance recently. The initial introduction to the characters is a constant barrage of too-cute meetings or quick collisions, so it would be slightly more tedious to describe how these happenstance encounters work than to actually watch them unfold.

Instead, it’s best to just point out the rest of the cast of characters more directly. Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is Tangie’s sister and Yasmine’s student — a young woman who’s become pregnant by losing her virginity. Nyla and Tangie’s mother is Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a devoutly religious woman, begging Tangie for money, under the impression it will go toward a college application for Nyla.

Jo (Janet Jackson) is Crystal’s boss, a cold, uncaring woman in a dead marriage to Carl (Omari Hardwick), who has not-so-chance meetings with men in cars under bridges but isn’t — he insists in the movie’s most unintentionally hilarious moment — gay. Jo also turns down a request for a donation to Juanita’s (Loretta Devine) local health clinic (see, it truly is impossible to escape the oh-so all-encompassing unification of the whole thing), while Juanita also deals with the no-good, cheating Frank (Richard Lawson).

The women are intentionally weak or lacking in some capacity. They must be for the resulting dishing out of cosmic punishment to work. Bill rapes Yasmine. Nyla winds up in the hospital after a literal back-alley abortion. Everyone but especially Crystal (and the audience) is struck down by an unbearable tragedy in a devious, wretched moment of domestic abuse turned into a despicable kind of melodrama. Two innocent lives end, but at least everyone learns a lesson from it.

Therein lies the type of moralizing Perry is working toward here. These are women who undergo pain and suffering because of some perceived flaw within or about them.

One character escapes penalty entirely, and appropriately enough, it’s Gilda, the character who herself sits in judgment over the rest in the same way Perry feigns compassion for his characters while demanding they lives up to a certain standard. It’s not because she’s right but because she manages to blame everyone but herself — even when her actions mirror those she condemns. If Crystal is in the wrong for not standing up to her husband, what does it say about Gilda, who sits next door listening as he beats the young woman?

Perry has no time or concern for such ambiguity and instead hides behind Shange’s words in the third act. The women are shot in close-up, waxing poetic on rape, abortion, and the “metaphysical dilemma” of being an African-American woman.

The whole cast performs these monologues with exquisite precision, but the words, hampered by Perry’s attempt at a “realistic” narrative and the awkward cut-and-paste job of placing them as pieces of dialogue, turn hollow. There is heart behind For Colored Girls, and it’s in the wrong place.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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