A DISAPPOINTING MEETING – Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns

I’m a wavering fan and admirer of Tyler Perry. The story of his challenging journey and personal and professional struggles he had to overcome to reach where he is today, his disarming humility and his creation and enactment of the deliciously mischievous Madea resonate with a growing number of people all over the world, including me. It is also amazing that since his meteoric rise to fame and being a household name, he has been responsible for a steady stream of films telling the stories of and featuring characters of colour. I suspect that he may have already, or be about to surpass Spike Lee for the enviable distinction of single-handedly providing roles/work to the most African-American performers: an extremely significant achievement for a man who experienced abuse as a teenager, was once homeless, slept in his car and who spent his last dime to produce a play that ignited his phoenix-like rise.

Even with this as an inspiring backdrop, I was enticed and excited about Meet the Browns for a number of other reasons: the magnificent Angela Bassett was the leading lady, the fabulous Jennifer Lewis had a featured role, powerhouse gospel singer Tamela Mann was also in the cast and the icing on the cake was that her husband David Mann was given an opportunity to showcase his wild and hilarious characterization of Madea’s son-in-law Leroy Brown. Sadly, this combination of ingredients did not deliver a satisfying end product.

Written and directed by Perry, Meet the Browns is, at best, mildly entertaining. Despite an engaging storyline and plot, the film only achieves a mild simmer and not Perry’s usual rolling boil. Another surprise was that the humour (usually a strong point), all too often, felt forced and contrived. This time around the elements simply did not blend to create and present the kind of triumphant tour-de-force we’ve come to expect from this modern-day phenomenon.

The story, in brief, is: Brenda Brown, a struggling single mother of three living in Chicago (played by Bassett) is reeling from a series of bad breaks and hard knocks: she is unable to pay her irritable but kind-hearted babysitter, her son has to wear basketball shoes that are too small and she can only offer her family oatmeal for breakfast. As if this wasn’t bad enough, her light is cut off for non-payment and she loses her job.  She gets a letter telling her that her father (who she did not know) has died. The envelope also contains tickets for her to travel to Georgiato attend the funeral. Her decision to go to Georgiais what causes her to meet the Browns, her ‘country’ relatives who are strangers to her. The secondary storyline is that her teenage son Michael, while dealing with the realities of a deadbeat dad, having to loosen his basketball shoes during matches and being the man of the house, is being scouted by basketball teams and tempted by the possible rewards of drug-dealing.

Even though there are commendable, even above-average performances form more than one member of the cast, the whole production never achieves excellence. As one would expect, Bassett and Lewis lead the pack in overall portrayals, with a solid and promising performance by Lance Gross as Bassett’s son. This young man has a great deal of potential. His acting was convincing, honest and engaging. The runaway performance of the film is delivered with flair, aplomb and vivacity by Sofia Vergara as Cheryl, Brenda’s colleague and friend. Her riotous antics and sassy swagger lit up the screen.

While it was great to see Margaret Avery (Shug Avery in the Colour Purple) she had little to do, and much to my distress, Tamela Mann did not sing a note, which left her to be sweet but not memorable in the role of Cora, Madea’s daughter.

My two biggest disappointments with the film are the pairing of Angela Bassett and Rick Fox and fate of David Mann’s portrayal of Leroy Brown. Rick Fox was cast as a basketball scout/coach and Bassett’s love interest. Unfortunately, there was little or no chemistry between them, which left the development of their relationship a rather lukewarm affair. It left me yearning for and reminiscing about the incendiary, palpable chemistry between Kimberly Elise and Shemar Moore in the Perry classic Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

David Mann fell prey to the same foe that Tyler Perry faces when he portrays Madea on screen. Characters created for the stage, often do not transfer or ‘translate’ to the medium of film. Madea and Leroy Brown are wonderfully idiosyncratic and delightfully entertaining on stage, which is much more welcoming of larger-than-life, over-the top characters. While Mann’s character work in Meet the Browns was commendable and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Leroy Brown, for the most part, came across as slapstick and out of place, as did Madea and her brother (both roles played by Perry as usual) in the high-speed car chase scene tacked on near the end of the film. I believe, and hope, that Perry has begun to realize the unfortunate weakness of Madea in film. (If you notice she is appearing less in his films). Madea and Leroy Brown should be saved for the stage where they are effervescent and effective, even legendary.

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