'Meet the Browns': Slapstick That Resonates

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

To appreciate "Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns," there's really only one requirement: Loosen up.

Too much judgmental thinking could easily miss the direct, vibrant connection between Perry and his targeted audience -- a bond that develops beneath the surface of slapstick, bawdiness and sitcom goofiness. As with Perry's commercially successful "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion," this isn't a movie in the normal sense. It's a call-and-response session that is so not ready for church. (Because it bounces along to a different beat, it is no surprise that distributor Lionsgate didn't screen "Meet the Browns" for critics ahead of opening day; they figured reviewers wouldn't get it.)

Angela Bassett stars as Brenda, a single mother who lives a tough life in the Chicago projects with a teenage son, Michael (Lance Gross), and two younger daughters. She has just lost her job, her son's deadbeat father won't pay her child support and the power company has shut off her electricity.

She gets a temporary reprieve when she travels to rural Georgia to attend the funeral of the father she's never known. This means meeting country kin she's also never seen, including the kind of spirited characters audiences know to expect in a Tyler Perry movie. (As for Perry's much-anticipated on-screen appearance as Madea and her brother Joe, we won't give away details. But we will tell you Perry's next project is called "Madea Goes to Jail.")

Built around Brenda's hardscrabble travails, "Meet the Browns" amounts to a cultural pep rally for one of African American culture's most treasured -- and most vilified -- icons: the single mother.

"I pray, try to pray," Brenda says in a brave-through-the-tears tone of voice. "But where's it getting me?"

Under normal circumstances, a movie moment like this might seem sappy -- and even draw derisive laughter. But in this film's context, it's a lump-in-the-throat moment. And so what if Bassett's self-assertiveness, uptown classiness and trademark poise make it hard to believe any character she plays would ever find herself in such a lowly place?

But "Meet the Browns" is not cheesy agitprop -- it's too lively and funny for that. This is the kind of irreverent crowd-pleaser that gets a big laugh when one of Brenda's girlfriends hits a man in the head with a brick. Why? Because the recipient is a deadbeat dad who refuses to give Brenda a cent of child support despite making $25 an hour at his construction job. The laughter isn't just about the sight gag, it's cathartic.

When Michael calls a timeout in a basketball game to retie his broken shoelaces, that's about poverty. Mama is watching, natch, with both daughters. And that's about family.

There's another deeper element to Brenda's growing relationship with handsome Harry (Rick Fox), a basketball talent scout who promises to get Michael a college scholarship and make sure he gets good grades.

Yes, Harry seems impossibly perfect, all biceps, big smile and Jheri curl majesty. But he's there to emphasize a shortfall in certain corners of Perry's culture -- the lack of men who accept responsibility and take on commitments. He'd come across as a schematic icon in other movies. Here he's a godsend and, darn it, the audience will take him, one dimension and all!

Is Harry on the level, or a gold digger, hoping to exploit Michael? Will Michael stick to his schoolwork or sell out with the nearest pro ball team? How is Brenda going to make ends meet? On the surface, these questions may seem banal and hackneyed. But they are emotional cues, intentionally designed to trigger catcalls, moans of horror, cries of empathy and any other participatory reactions from the people watching. Sit with any appreciative crowd -- like the one at yesterday's matinee in a downtown theater -- and that special connection with Perry can rock the joint.

Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for drug content, language including sexual references, thematic elements and brief violence.

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