Let me confess right off the bat that “Meet the Browns” was my very first Tyler Perry movie. From the reviews I’ve read of the other ones, however, I know that Perry cannily traffics in African-American melodrama, where the city is bad, the country is better and Jesus is best. Throw in some broad caricatures and some moralizing uplift, and you’ve got the formula for success for this groundbreaking mogul.
Despite everything I’ve heard about how Perry’s films boast the subtlety of a sledgehammer, however, I have to admit I was thoroughly entertained and delighted by “Meet the Browns,” a film that my viewing companion — a veteran of Perry’s entire filmography — assures me is his best to date.
Angela Bassett stars as Brenda Brown, a single mother of three doing her best to raise her kids in the projects of Chicago, despite financial difficulties and the lure of drugs and crime. Her son Michael (Lance Gross) shows promise as a basketball player, and Brenda does everything she can to keep him out of trouble and to ensure that his hoop dreams don’t prevent him from getting an education. Around the time that former pro player Harry (Rick Fox) starts sniffing around Michael’s prospects, Brenda gets a letter from Georgia telling her that the father she never knew has died.
Flat broke, and with the electricity turned off, Brenda figures she has nothing to lose so she and her brood head South where, by sheer coincidence, Harry happens to live in the same rural town as the Browns, Brenda’s half-siblings. Brenda’s father leaves her a dilapidated old house, but she decides that she and her family are better off in Chicago, where Harry — who has begun to pitch some serious woo at Brenda — promises to visit to help coach Michael.
Things get complicated but, true to form, the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perry keeps things moving at a brisk clip — aided by his editor, Robert Altman veteran Maysie Hoy — and the cast turns what might have been caricatures into interesting and fleshed-out characters. Bassett, of course, is brilliant at inhabiting Brenda’s determination, weariness and skepticism, and she gets able support from young Gross and from old pros like Irma P. Hall (as a helpful neighbor), Margaret Avery and Frankie Faison.
The great Jenifer Lewis shines with what is becoming her stock character — the Sunday-church-hat–wearing, judgmental loud talker — and David Mann snags some laughs as the buffoonish Leroy Brown (although no one makes a Jim Croce joke about his name).
If anything flat-out doesn’t work in “Meet the Browns,” it’s the casting of Fox (who has no chemistry with either Bassett or with the camera), Aaron Zigman’s oppressive score, and a tacked-on scene featuring Perry’s popular Madea character. The latter adds nothing to the story and seems to have been included solely to feature Madea on the poster (and to promote the eventual movie version of his hit play “Madea Goes to Jail”).
Despite these missteps, however, “Meet the Browns” is lots of fun — light on the Jesus-ifying and heavy on showcasing some very talented African-American performers whom audiences don’t get to see often enough. You’ll be glad to have been introduced.