Meet the Browns, Tyler Perry's fourth feature as director, and one that is held in low regard among his films even by those who like the bulk of his work. Liked, not loved; it's still awfully slight, and Perry's shortcomings as a visual storyteller remain far too crippling to overlook. But I sort of liked it anyway. And when one is thrust into the position of having more affection for a Tyler Perry picture than some of Tyler Perry's very own fans... it is a peculiar sort of looking glass to have jumped through.
A great deal of this is due to the presence of Angela Bassett in the lead role; of the many talented black actresses given a rare chance to shine thanks to Perry's films, she is possibly the most talented. Moreover, her character, Brenda, is written with a bit more heft than a lot of Perry protagonists. At any rate, her arc is about anything at all besides finding a good man and reaffirming her Christian faith - rather, she still does those things, but they are basically incidental to the actual plot of the film, which has a lot more to do with questions of family and the responsibilities thereof, and how much biological history has to do with personal identity. See, Brenda was born to a father she never met, who has just died; she has been invited by his other surviving children to attend the funeral, and looking for closure, she takes the plunge on doing just that. So it is that she meets the Browns: Leroy Brown (David Mann), the garrulous eldest son of the late Pop Brown, his daughter Cora (Tamela Man), second Brown son LB (Frankie Faison) and wife Sarah (Margaret Avery), and Brown sister Vera (Jenifer Lewis), who instantly distrusts the newcomer to the family.
It is, incidentally, not best to dwell too much on the family relationships; the film presents fairly incompatible evidence about who is related in what chronological order. The important thing is that Brenda has no family buy the boys she defends like a tiger; and then she has the Browns, who she doesn't want; then she learns why it is good to want them. It is, in its fashion, just as primitive as the clumsy dramatics of any of his earlier scripts; particularly in light of the subplot which finds Brenda resisting the charms of an Atlanta-based basketball recruiter, Harry (Rick Fox), when he tries to talk to her son in Chicago, only to cross paths with him when she journeys south to meet her new family, a scenario that has basically already played out in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion; particularly in light of Brenda's evil ex-husband Michael (Phillip Van Lear), a characteristically charming example of lower-class masculinity, all violence and threats and wrongthink so absurdly overwrought as to barely qualify as caricature. Incidentally, I have seen it pointed out that the horrible men in Perry's movies are always darker-skinned than the gentle good men that the protagonists end up loving; and while it's not entirely true (Idris Elba, hero of Daddy's Little Girls, is fairly dark-skinned), it certainly fits here. I bring it up mostly because I haven't previously, and not because Meet the Browns is particularly problematic in the grand scheme of Perry films for its racial stereotyping.
On the contrary, actually: maybe it's just because I have such a sharp aversion to Perry's Madea and Uncle Joe characters (who cameo, rather pointlessly, in this film's endgame), but I found that the depiction of the Brown family - a cluster of broad comic types one and all - to be considerably less grotesque, and insofar as Perry can be accused, with considerable justification, of neo-minstrelsy, I think it's harder to make that charge stick here, in a movie where even the goofiest characters are still grounded in some kind of baseline reality. They are comic exaggerations of human characteristics, rather than violations; and while they are still undoubtedly comic relief in an otherwise serious story about any number of societal ills that Perry can cram into yet another messagey script, they are not the kind of comic relief that tears through the movie screaming with a chainsaw, but the kind that is actually comic, and actually relieving. It is alternately possible that the nightmare of Madea has simply broken my ability to respond to comedy in a healthy way, and the Browns are still, indeed, shrill louts.
Back to Bassett, though, and Brenda - for the Browns are all in all quite a secondary concern of a movie that is ultimately about her journey. Now, Perry remaining a shaky storyteller, Meet the Browns is ultimately a messy, even inchoate script - as near as I can tell, one of the reasons that it tends to be ranked lower among Perry's films by his fans is that it is not truly adapted from the play of the same name, but is a mash-up of several others, and even without knowing the specific content of any of his theatrical work, the joins are still visible; nor is it altogether easy to shake the feeling that the middle portion of the movie where the Browns are most prominent is meant to serve as a crypto-pilot for the Meet the Browns TV show, of which I have seen nothing at all (just as I have not seen any of his first series House of Payne, and silently left it the hell out of this retrospective); and one suspects that without Brenda's moderating influence, the series can't possibly be very good.
Still, for all that it is a colossally sloppy script, Brenda at least is a solid character, who gets to serve as the vehicle for all sorts of social commentary and theme-mongering. This sounds like a terrible thing, since Perry is neither a profound thinker nor an especially insightful social critic, but Bassett sells it as far as she is able, while investing the character with a level of dignity and plausibility that the screenwriting doesn't necessarily convey. The anchor of a strong, convincing central character is enough to keep it from feeling, as Perry's films tend to, like he's pandering; unlike e.g. Lisa and Vanessa in Madea's Family Reunion, Brenda appears to have enough actual personality and reality behind what we see in the movie that she's not obviously just a prop in Perry's rickety morality play.
And it really is all Bassett, because nobody else in the film is half as good (though among the Browns, not required to be plausible humans but merely effective comic sidekicks, Faison and Lewis both turn in fairly enjoyable performances), and Perry's artistry remains dubious at best: there is no out-and-out shitty filmmaking on the level of Daddy's Little Girls or Why Did I Get Married? but the director's most sophisticated gesture in the whole picture is to trot out a cover of the tired Staple Singers' standard "I'll Take You There" during the opening credits, and for the rest of it he lunges from the emotional tenor of an afterschool special (the scenes with Brenda's son and the local drug dealer are mismanaged to a shocking degree, acted and shot like a parody of community theater) to broad comedy that plays as, well, a sitcom. Though, and this can't be repeated enough, Perry's treatment of comedy that does not feature himself wearing a dress is so much better than it is in the Madea pictures that even if Meet the Browns is pretty weak stuff, it at least bears enough resemblance to human life as it is lived in the real world that I can't help but feel just a little bit of sympathy for it. It might not be any better than every other story about wacky families looking out for each other; but it is also not any worse. For Tyler Perry, that has to be enough.