Well, it took five tries, but Tyler Perry has finally made a good movie. Not a great movie, and not a movie without its flaws, but a good one nonetheless. This is something that, like a colony on the moon, many scientists believed we would not see in our lifetimes.
The film is “Meet the Browns,” which Perry has adapted from one of his his seemingly endless supply of stage plays, and it shows remarkable growth. The awkward mix of farcical comedy and Lifetime Network melodrama that sunk his previous films (“Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “Why Did I Get Married?,” etc.) has been diluted considerably, so that now only a few moments stand out as cringingly slaphappy.
For the most part, it’s a satisfying, respectable drama starring Angela Bassett — it’s no coincidence that Perry’s best movie has the best actress he’s been able to get — as Brenda, a Chicago single mother struggling to make ends meet. She’s a good mother, savvy and shrewd and protective, but she can only do so much. The kids’ fathers are not in the picture. And as the film begins, the factory where she and her pothead Latina best friend Cheryl (Sofia Vergara) are employed closes down.
On the same day, Brenda gets word that her father (whom she never met) has died in Georgia, and that one of her half-siblings has provided bus tickets for her and the kids to come to the funeral. She travels to the rural, unnamed town to meet her extended family for the first time, and for a few minutes you think it’s going to be a retread of “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” with a never-ending parade of buffoonish characters and outré backwater situations. Certainly Brenda’s introduction to her half-brother Leroy Brown (David Mann), who wears garish outfits and behaves in a like manner, is not encouraging.
Fortunately, things quickly settle down again; the rest of the Browns are, if not completely normal, at least wacky in an agreeable, comfortable way. (I do like Jenifer Lewis as Vera, Brenda’s heavy-drinking, outspoken half-sister.) The film is about Brenda’s attempts to find stability for herself and her three children, and it plays out like a modern-day fairy tale. There are villains like Michael (Phillip Edward Van Lear), one of her snaky, deadbeat baby daddies. There is also a gallant prince in the form of Harry (Rick Fox), a basketball recruiter with his eye on Brenda’s talented son, Michael Jr. (Lance Gross), and on Brenda herself. The finale is deliriously, improbably happy — which is the point of the whole thing, of course.
Bassett is outstanding as Brenda, strong and dignified in the face of hardship (and, occasionally, in the face of other actors being less strong and dignified). There’s a crucial scene in the first act between Bassett and Irma P. Hall as Mildred, an elderly neighbor who runs an informal daycare. Mildred, a no-nonsense old gal, dares to bring up a subject that may have already been on the viewer’s mind: “You young girls today, having more babies than you can take care of.” Brenda acknowledges her mistakes but dismisses them as beside the point: She gave birth to the kids, and now they’re her responsibility. Bassett’s distinguished performance makes it easy to go from judging Brenda for getting knocked up by three different guys to admiring her for striving to do the right thing now.
Perry’s writing is still clumsy at times. “Meet the Browns” uses an extraordinary coincidence (Harry the basketball recruiter happens to be from the same tiny Georgia town as Brenda’s relatives!) and some phony crises to manufacture instant drama. Brenda makes a major decision about the future of her family at one point, and the movie doesn’t even show the decision-making process. From a storytelling standpoint, that’s flat-out wrong. Perry’s signature character, the rascally old Madea, makes a cameo late in the game that literally could be removed from the film without affecting the story in any way.
Yet despite those mistakes, “Meet the Browns” feels like an honest, warm drama with relatable characters. The humor is mostly funny and unforced. If Perry can maintain this balance between fulfilling the audience’s wishes and shamelessly pandering to them, he might prove to be a gifted filmmaker after all.
B- (1 hr., 40 min.; )