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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns

Tyler Perry's films usually revolve around the themes of family, religion, and being thankful for what you have. If there's one thing that Mr. Perry should be thankful for it's that he had the sense to cast Angela Bassett in the lead role of his latest film, Meet the Browns. She gives a heartfelt and nuanced performance as Brenda, a single mother struggling to raise three kids in the Chicago Projects. Whenever the film is focused on her performance, you can almost hear the material ready to click. Too bad Perry's bad habit of overly broad characters and stereotypes have to keep on rearing their ugly heads whenever the supporting cast are on screen, intent on distracting us from the stuff that works. The end mixed result is a movie that seems to say that the filmmaker is starting to learn from some past mistakes, but still wants to hold onto his past tricks.

Bassett's Brenda is hit with a string of bad news almost as soon as the opening credits finish. She loses her job when the company she works for closes down suddenly, she can't afford to keep her youngest daughter in day care, and the city has cut off the power to her apartment. Her oldest son, Michael (Lance Gross), has a possible chance at a college basketball scholarship, but he might be lured into the temptations of drug dealing before he even gets a chance. Worst still, her deadbeat ex-husband won't help her. It's about this time that a letter arrives for Brenda that invites her to Georgia to attend the funeral of her father, whom she never actually knew. She reluctant to go, even if the bus tickets to Georgia are free, but her obnoxious Latino-stereotype best friend (Sofia Vergara) convinces her to go. Up to this point, I was finding the movie mostly tolerable, if not predictable. Aside from the best friend character, who almost comes across as a parody of a Latino woman, Perry had been showing a surprising amount of subtlety with the character of Brenda. Any thoughts that Perry might be showing growth as a filmmaker are dashed when Brenda and her family arrive in Georgia, and we finally meet the Browns.

The Brown family are an eccentric bunch. So eccentric, they find the need to scream most of their dialogue. Brenda doesn't seem quite sure what to make of them, and neither did I. Unlike the character, however, I had a much harder time being won over by their quirkiness. The first member of the family we meet is Leroy (David Mann), and he is not a sign of good things to come. He dresses like he buys his clothes from the circus, and he constantly makes "cute" mistakes when he talks, such as when he tells Brenda the family is going to gather to listen to her father's "last will and testicles". The rest of the family are a preachy, gossipy bunch who welcome Brenda into their home, and give her strength to keep on trying, no matter how bad things may seem. Despite the Brown family getting their name in the title, this movie isn't even really about them. The movie seems far more interested in the budding relationship Brenda has with a man named Harry (Rich Fox), who initially shows great interest in advancing son Michael's basketball career, but soon takes an even greater interest in her. In fact, I started to wonder why we even needed the Browns at all, since they seem to exist simply for broad comic relief that isn't funny in the first place.

Meet the Browns is an overstuffed movie that could have and should have made more room for the stuff that works. The relationship between Brenda and Harry may not exactly be deep, but there is a certain chemistry between the two actors that I found enjoyable. The movie affords the characters a couple of quiet moments to get closer, but they are few and fleeting. Instead, writer-director Perry keeps on trying to draw our attention with pointless melodrama. The whole subplot concerning Michael possibly giving up his basketball career to sell dope on the street with his friends is a cry of desperation just to add some heavy-handed drama to the proceedings. Equally unnecessary is the scene where Brenda's ex-husband shows up suddenly, offering to give her money, but only if she lets him have his way with her sexually. The movie works best as a simple drama of a woman who stays strong in the face of mounting problems and pressures, and how she keeps her faith in herself despite it all. Why does it need the drug dealers and the obnoxiously broad comic relief characters? It's almost as if Perry is wrestling with his own screenplay. He wants to tell an honest and uplifting story, but he also wants to give the fans of his past films what they're expecting. That's why we get a brief and pointless cameo of his Madea character, who pops up long enough to get arrested by the police after being stuck in an O.J. Simpson-style slow speed chase, then is never heard from again. Madea is yet another element that does not belong in this film.

Perry doesn't even seem to have faith in his own simple story of the two lead characters falling in love with each other. He just has to throw in a contrived plot twist out of the blue where Brenda just happens to hear one of the Brown family members talking about Harry, and how he has had debt problems in the past due to his previously unmentioned gambling habit. This bit of information is blatantly unnecessary, and exists only so that there can be tension in the relationship, and they can break up briefly. The fact that this revelation comes during the last 20 minutes of the movie only seems to drag things out instead of actually contribute to the story. Brenda and Harry are likable people, and don't deserve to be puppets, forced to dance for the amusement of an undercooked and overloaded plot. When Brenda later finds out the truth, we have to ask ourselves why Harry didn't just say it when she initially confronted him about his gambling. It would have saved them both a lot of trouble, and they could have been happier a lot sooner.

Though there are too many problems on display for me to recommend Meet the Browns, I do have to say that this is probably the best Tyler Perry movie yet, meaning it's the first of his movies I've seen that won't wind up on my Worst of the Year list. There are scenes in this film that do show he is growing as a filmmaker. All he has to do is learn to let go of what has made his past films so annoying and unwatchable. If he's smart, he'll use Angela Bassett again, and put her in a screenplay that works with her performance, instead of constantly trying to divert attention away from it.

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